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The environment of a dirty city


Sinkholes full of garbage. Animal slaughtering within the city limits. Breweries that smelled strongly. Factories in the downtown area and further out, burning soft, dirty coal. The same coal burning in your house and leaving its grit everywhere. Coal smoke swirling through town. The never-ending task of keeping homes and persons clean.  


Although I knew that turn of the century  cities commonly suffered from air pollution, I found this book quite interesting. It’s Common Fields: an environmental history of St. Louis, and it’s edited by Andrew Hurley, who has a good introduction and a chapter on regulating nuisances in the time period of interest. Other chapters come from well-known St. Louis authors. Below, I include pages and the last names of the author or authors of the chapter offering the particular information. This book was published in 1997 by the Missouri Historical Society Press and is available at Historical Society sites.


1910 St. Louis was dirty. Most American cities were dirty because of manufacturing but St. Louis had the added problem of its geology. That geology led to sinkholes, which tended to fill up with waste of one sort or another. (Hurley, 149) Another problem related to geography.  It was natural to want to use the closest source of coal, which happened to be a very soft bituminous coal from western Illinois. It produced the most smoke and waste of any of the coals commonly used.  (pg. 208, Tarr and Zimring)


St. Louis was a heavy-duty manufacturing site, and much of it was particularly polluting: flour milling, machine-shop products, chewing tobacco, malt liquor, and animal slaughtering.  The latter created problems well beyond smoke pollution.  This list is from the 1880 census, and these industries were the largest, probably by employment. Also present in 1880 were paint manufacturing, brick manufacturing, bag production, and ironmaking. Most of these industries were also present in 1910, along with others.  (You could find those in listing from the 1910 census. I have simply heavy manufacturing in St. Louis and pull out particular industries, like garment and cigar manufacturing as I need them. These lists, as well as the following quote, are from Hurley’s chapter, page 148.)  Hurley says,


Brick kilns spewed dust into the surrounding atmosphere; bagging factories discharged fine mists of flax and jute particles; beer brewing left residues of grain laden swill, and paint manufacturing released massive quantities of lead dust. . . . Railroads passing through the city left thick trails of black carbon particles in their wake.  In and around freight and passenger depots the accumulation of railroad smoke could become especially dense. (148)


Add the smell of the animal slaughtering to the other smells, and the city wasn’t only dirty and smoky, it smelled really bad.


This is not to suggest that St. Louis wasn’t doing anything about the problem. Clean water was a serious problem, and St. Louis dealt admirably with that problem, drawing from the Mississippi above the city, and filtering it.  Major improvements were made in 1908 and 1915. (page 200, Tarr and Zimring) But the air quality problem was not as easily solved. Attempts to set up regulation were opposed by the coal interests in Illinois, by industries large and small, and by the many poor households who wanted the cheapest source of fuel possible.


Economists recognize this as a negative externality problem. It was in the best interest of individuals to use cheap fuel and produce smoke, even if they had to breathe the smoke. It was in the best interest of the city as a whole to find a less polluting fuel source. In this kind of situation, only government can step in to regulate the situation.  The government might be encouraged by some citizens and opposed by others, mixing a smelly dose of politics into the economic equation.  (Yes, I was an economist in a previous life.)


Several groups mobilized to urge regulation and to clean up the messes. The upper class women of the Wednesday Club began agitating for cleaner air in 1890. The Civic League and others were highly involved as well. Tarr and Zimring (page 201-2) describe their concerns.


The smoke reduced the hours of sunlight, blackened building facades and destroyed stonework, injured vegetation, discolored clothing and fabrics, and deposited grit and dirt throughout homes. Smoke increased the costs and labor required to clean homes. . . . People suffered as well as plants, and sulfur compounds irritated the mucus membranes of the upper respiratory system, increase the distress of people with pulmonary problems, and was suspected as a factor in the prevalence of diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. (201-2)


The good news for St. Louis was that it finally got good smoke abatement legislation and did so relatively early.  The 1940 legislation was a model for other cities in the country. (page 200, Tarr and Zimring)  But if you could transport yourself to St. Louis in 1910, you would be assaulted by the awful smells and enough smoke that you couldn’t really see where the smells came from. Sometimes, the smoke actually made it into the plot of a story.  My heroine is worried about a stalker in this scene, as she leaves her boardinghouse early for work.


I knew of no way to get to work except to walk out the door of the boardinghouse. I could do it with gun in hand, but that was going to be as safe as it got. . . . I went from window to window, watching a minute at each. Sides could have been standing by the end of the porch, or even across the street, and I couldn’t have seen him. Although there was some light, the usual morning coal-smoke haze made it possible for someone to hide. He would have to be very still, but then, why wouldn’t he be?

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