Journal of American History


This special issue of the Journal of American History, “Oil in American History,” addresses one of the most central and controversial topics of contemporary political and social debates: the reliance of the United States and its citizens on petroleum and its by-products. For decades, American society has run on oil. Yet despite oil’s nearly pervasive role in our daily lives, few Americans have ever directly viewed the oil that travels from the well to their cars, and most consumers have had only a vague sense of their dependence on a multitude of synthetic materials derived from oil. Similarly, oil is largely invisible in many narratives of twentieth-century U.S. history.

Prompted by a growing awareness of oil’s centrality to American life following a dramatic rise in crude prices, the spectacular drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and concern about climate change driven by the use of fossil fuels, this special issue of the Journal of American History assembles a variety of approaches to writing oil into U.S. history. The goal of the contributors to this special issue—Brian C. Black, Michael Botson, Paul Chastko, Craig E. Colten, Darren Dochuk, Sarah S. Elkind, Jay Hakes, Stephen Haycox, Diana Davids Hinton, Toby Craig Jones, Kairn A. Klieman, Robert Lifset, Karen R. Merrill, Kathryn Morse, David S. Painter, Joseph A. Pratt, Tyler Priest, Paul Sabin, Myrna Santiago, Christopher Sellers, Jason Theriot, and Christopher W. Wells—is not only to provide new analyses of traditional oil subjects, such as business, technology, and foreign policy, but also to explore novel themes, such as the social and cultural aspects of oil consumption, the environmental politics and impact of oil development, oil’s relationship to evangelical Christianity, oil and urbanization, labor organizing and government taxation of oil, and the depiction of oil in print, television, and film. Several essays contribute to the internationalization of U.S. history by examining American oil interests in Mexico, Canada, Nigeria, and the Middle East. Others highlight the distinctiveness of the Gulf of Mexico in the landscape of American oil. Together, the contributions to this special issue provide a unique lens on modern U.S. history.

The Journal of American History has created a companion Web site for this special issue. Please see

These articles are freely available to the public online at the Oxford University Press Web site.

Introduction: A Decidedly Valuable and Dangerous Fuel

by Jay Hakes, p. 19 Read online >

Oil and the American Century

by David S. Painter, p. 24 Read online >

Oil for Living: Petroleum and American Conspicuous Consumption

by Brian C. Black, p. 40 Read online >

Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest

by Darren Dochuk, p. 51 Read online >

Culture Clash: Foreign Oil and Indigenous People in Northern Veracruz, Mexico, 1900–1921

by Myrna Santiago, p. 62 Read online >

Fueling the Boom: Gasoline Taxes, Invisibility, and the Growth of the American Highway Infrastructure, 1919–1956

by Christopher W. Wells , p. 72 Read online >

Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles

by Sarah S. Elkind, p. 82 Read online >

An Incomplete Solution: Oil and Water in Louisiana

by Craig E. Colten, p. 91 Read online >

Bucking the Odds: Organized Labor in Gulf Coast Oil Refining

by Tyler Priest and Michael Botson, p. 100 Read online >

Petropolis and Environmental Protest in Cross-National Perspective: Beaumont—Port Arthur, Texas, versus Minatitlán-Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz

by Christopher Sellers, p. 111 Read online >

There Will Be Birds: Images of Oil Disasters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

by Kathryn Morse, p. 124 Read online >

Imaging the “Devil’s Excrement”: Big Oil in Petroleum Cinema, 1940–2007

by Robert Lifset and Brian C. Black, p. 135 Read online >

Exxon and the Control of Oil

by Joseph A. Pratt, p. 145 Read online >

U.S. Oil Companies, the Nigerian Civil War, and the Origins of Opacity in the Nigerian Oil Industry

by Kairn A. Klieman, p. 155 Read online >

Anonymity and Ambivalence: The Canadian and American Oil Industries and the Emergence of Continental Oil

by Paul Chastko, p. 166 Read online >

Crisis and Continuity in U.S. Oil Politics, 1965–1980

by Paul Sabin, p. 177 Read online >

Building America’s First Off shore Oil Port: loop

by Jason Theriot, p. 187 Read online >

Texas Metropole: Oil, the American West, and U.S. Power in the Postwar Years

by Karen R. Merrill, p. 197 Read online >

America, Oil, and War in the Middle East

by Toby Craig Jones, p. 208 Read online >

“Fetched Up”: Unlearned Lessons from the Exxon Valdez

by Stephen Haycox, p. 219 Read online >

The Seventeen-Year Overnight Wonder: George Mitchell and Unlocking the Barnett Shale

by Diana Davids Hinton, p. 229 Read online >

The Dilemmas of Oil Empire

by Tyler Priest, p. 236 Read online >

The Risks of Dead Reckoning: A Postscript on Oil, Climate Change, and Political Time

by Karen R. Merrill, p. 252 Read online >

Exhibition Reviews

  • “Introduction,” by Benjamin Filene and Brian Horrigan (p. 256) Read online >
  • “Hope for America: Performers, Politics, and Pop Culture,” by Charles F. McGovern (p. 257) Read online >
  • “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” by Helen Langa (p. 260) Read online >
  • “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” by Andy Urban (p. 266) Read online >
  • “The 1968 Exhibit,” by Judy Kutulas (p. 269) Read online >
  • “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburg Courier,” by Nico Slate (p. 382) Read online >
  • “National Prisoner of War Museum,” by Glenn Robins (p. 275) Read online >

Book Reviews

June 2012, Vol. 99 No. 1

Alphabetical by the last name of the book's first author or editor.

  • Alexander, Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin, by Renee Romano
  • Babcock, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, by Tracy A. Thomas
  • Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois, by Charles Pete Banner-Haley
  • Banner and Gillis, Becoming Historians, by Sol Cohen
  • Barker and McKee, eds., American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary, by Gerald R. Butters Jr.
  • Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas, by George A. Martinez
  • Bencivenni, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890–1940, by Diane C. Vecchio
  • Bergeron, Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction, by Gordon McKinney
  • Bigler and Bagley, The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857–1858, by W. Paul Reeve
  • Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, by Robert J. Cook
  • Böger, Envisioning the Nation: The Early American World’s Fairs and the Formation of Culture, by Robert W. Rydell
  • Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History, by Michael B. Katz
  • Bone and Courage, The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932–1950, by Peter M. Rutkoff
  • Bornstein, The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945, by Hasia R. Diner
  • Borrelli, The Politics of the President’s Wife, by Lisa M. Burns
  • Brogi, Confronting America: The Cold War between the United States and the Communists in France and Italy, by David F. Schmitz
  • Brooke, Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson, by Brian Phillips Murphy
  • Broyles, Beethoven in America, by Michael Stamm
  • Butchart, Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning, and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861–1876, by Stephen Gilroy Hall
  • Chopra, Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution, by Phillip Papas
  • Colbert, Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art, by Cynthia Mills
  • Collins and Chaltain, We Must Not Be Afraid to Be Free: Stories of Free Expression in America, by Ken I. Kersch
  • Creadick, Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America, by Kirk Curnutt
  • Crosby, ed., Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, A National Movement, by Kenneth S. Jolly

Movie Reviews

  • J. Edgar, by James B. Gilbert (p. 372) Read online >
  • Prohibition, by Tona Hangen (p. 374) Read online >
  • Amigo, by Sharon Delmendo (p. 377) Read online >
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times, by Maura Jane Farrelly (p. 379) Read online >
  • The Black Power Mixtape, 1967—1975, by Simon Wendt (p. 380) Read online >
  • Rothstein’s First Assignment: A Story about Documentary Truth, by James I. Deutsch (p. 382) Read online >

Web site Reviews

  • 19th Century Schoolbooks, by Ann Fabian (p. 385) Read online >
  • Richmond Daily Dispatch, 1860—1865 and Mining the Dispatch by Jeffery W. McClurken (p. 386) Read online >
  • Origins of American Animation, 1900—1921, by Paula Petrik (p. 388) Read online >
  • Historical Thinking Matters, by Eric Sandweiss (p. 389) Read online >

Letters to the Editor


Recent Scholarship

View “Recent Scholarship” listing online >

Recent Scholarship is available as a searchable database, Recent Scholarship Online >

cover image

On the cover:

Two children pose with a miniature oil derrick near a Texas oil field, circa 1928. Courtesy Sloane Collection

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