Energy Crisis in the 1970s

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 27, 2020.

In the Fall of 1972, we settled in to watch a new TV series, The Waltons, about a proud family with far too many kids trying to make do on their family mountain in their cavernous house that had no mortgage during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The series lasted nine seasons. Why would 1970s audiences be drawn to a series about hard times? Perhaps it was because it seemed like everything was falling apart in the 1970s. The war in Vietnam had fractured society. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign – which had given him the greatest landslide victory in U.S. history – was gradually being soiled as the dirty tricks of the Watergate conspiracy were uncovered. Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. Food prices shot up – especially meat in 1972 (my family with far too many kids was introduced to chipped beef casserole during the 1970s. It has not been remembered fondly). Inflation was on the rise in the 1970s. Added to all of this, was a series of fuel shortages in 1973 and 1979.

Economists today call it the ‘Oil Shock’ of 1973 -74. At the time it happened, the news called it the ‘Oil Crisis.’ The word ‘crisis’ was used for nearly all the problems of the 1970s. We could handle a crisis. The first hints that there would be a fuel problem began in October of 1973, when OPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries), in retaliation for United States aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, increased the price of crude oil exports and then began an embargo. Gasoline and fuel oil prices skyrocketed. Although to modern eyes, $0.50 per gallon of gas might not seem so bad, it was a hardship at the time – especially since cars back then had terrible gas mileage. “While the politicians are off playing their political games worldwide with men and equipment, supported by helpless taxpayers’ dollars, back home the motherland’s economy is going to pieces,” snarled the editor of the Exeter News-Letter. As supplies of gas decreased, panic took over. Worried that they might not be able to get to work, drivers flocked to gas stations. The News-Letter began a program called “Share-a-Ride” offering to serve as a clearinghouse for people needing to set up car pools. Each week, beginning in November of 1973, the paper ran listings of people looking for regular ride-sharing opportunities.

“Humans are walking and bicycling more than they have for years,” read an editorial entitled “Gasoline Shortage Not Altogether Gloomy” in late November. “This, of course, is excellent physical therapy – and what is good for the physical body often improves one’s spiritual and mental attitudes. The rationing of motor fuel can’t help but have an impact on the automobile industry and should spur the sales of high mileage compacts versus the fuel hungry luxury cars.” Perhaps, it implies, this would spur construction of improved mass transportation systems. “The ugly and scary side of the crisis is the very fact that this once great and self-sufficient nation let itself get into a situation where oil blackmail by foreign powers can slow our industrial pace and even jeopardize the effectiveness of our military establishment. Perhaps if the environmentalists will ease up awhile on the pollution requirements we can all buy gas masks, charge up the coal burning furnaces and keep the kilowatts and thermal units climbing.” (note from 2020 – Yikes!).

Strict energy conservation became the rule of the day. Christmas, 1973, was dark, as outdoor decorations were discouraged. Exeter had already strung the lights in November ready for the season kick-off. They were not lit that year. To save on fuel oil, the Christmas break for SAU 16 was extended by three days to save on heating. Daylight Saving Time began early in 1974, on January 6th. More daylight in the afternoon kept people from turning on the lights, but it also meant that kids were catching school busses in the dark mornings. The opening times at the schools were delayed by a half hour to give them more light (it is of some note that schools opened later in the 1970s than they do today. Exeter High School, before the energy crisis, began classes at 7:55am. Today they start closer to 7:30). Thermostats were lowered to 66 degrees as people were reminded to pull on a sweater instead of turning up the heat.

Long lines at gas stations were problematic. The local gas dealers met twice to discuss the problem. There was talk of adopting the Oregon Plan – a system of limiting purchasing gas on odd and even days based on the final numeral of one’s license plate. Although it was discussed, it doesn’t seem to have been activated in Exeter. At a joint meeting of the Exeter Gasoline Dealers and the Exeter Board of Selectmen, it was agreed to put out a public statement which asked consumers for, “your continued cooperation in buying only what you need and only when you need it. PLEASE DO NOT TOP OFF !! In the event that voluntary means fail and lines again start forming on highways, the Selectmen have agreed, that in the interest of public safety, the Police will be required to eliminate the safety hazards created by these lines.” There was no explanation of how this would actually happen – arrests, closures, fines? Just don’t do it.

Shortages eased up in March when the embargo was lifted, although high prices remained. There was another crisis in the summer of 1979 caused by reaction to the Iranian Revolution. Rationing was again discussed, but was never implemented. World-wide supplies were not as interrupted as many had predicted and most of the difficulties in 1979 were caused by panic. Lots of families decided against taking a road trip vacation that summer. Still, it did encourage automakers to consider fuel efficiency when engineering cars.

So, what of all this 1970s nostalgia? We don’t want to put too much of a Pollyanna spin on those times – people were afraid. They were afraid their livelihoods would suffer, afraid they wouldn’t be able to heat their homes, afraid they would be in the dark. Those were scary, survivalist worries. But I’d say we’re in a bigger crisis right now – hunkered down in our homes, afraid that the handshake we took two weeks ago might be fatal to Grandma, afraid that there won’t be enough nurses to take care of us, afraid that things will be altogether different when we come out of this. As scary as it is, it’s been quite calming to spend the last few days blanketed in 1970s research. Yogurt came in 8-ounce cartons back then. EIGHT FULL OUNCES. Different times, I would say. Stay in contact with one another. Put on some music and dance. We will come out of this.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member! Join online at:

Image: Variety of signs posted at Exeter gasoline stations during the energy crisis of 1979. From the Exeter News-Letter, May 30, 1979.


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