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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 422-427
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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:
Pollution, Aesthetics, and Social Class
David E. Nye
David Stradling. Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. x + 270 pp. Illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, and index. $42.50.
In 1766 Benjamin Franklin identified smoke as unconsumed fuel and in the following decade claimed to have built a stove that produced none. It took more than a century before most Americans even began to see the problem. David Stradling examines air pollution in America from 1881-1951. This periodization reflects his focus on coal smoke, which was the major form of air pollution after the steam engine became the dominant source of American power until the transition to oil and natural gas. During these seven decades, progressive groups in many cities grappled with smoke that begrimed every building, that undermined the health of millions of people, and that at times so darkened downtown streets at noon that streetlights had to be turned on. There was nothing inevitable about such pollution in the logic of industrialization. In 1909 the chief engineer of the Geological Survey estimated that through inefficiencies in home furnaces and power plants the United States wasted 20 million tons of coal each year, which literally went up in smoke. A study sponsored by the city of Cleveland calculated that smoke cost every family an average of $44 a year in cleaning, painting, artificial lighting, and replacement of damaged goods. That was an unskilled laborer's wages for a month, and yet such estimates--there were many in other cities as well--did not include the damage to plants, animals, and human health. The department store owner Marshall Field estimated that the "soot tax" was larger than his real estate taxes.
Given these dire facts, why did progressives have to struggle for so long to improve the situation? Stradling provides several related answers. Nineteenth-century courts were generally unsympathetic to individual lawsuits against polluters, and early city ordinances were ineffectually enforced. Until at least the 1890s the perceived threat from smoke seemed less pressing in rapidly growing cities than the need for sewers and clean water supplies. Most people believed that cholera and other epidemics were caused by [End Page 422] impure water; in contrast, some thought that coal smoke purified the air. Progressive women reformers, who took up the cause, with some assistance from engineers, defined the problem in terms of health, aesthetics, cleanliness, and morality, a perception reinforced by the City Beautiful Movement. Only after physicians became involved after 1900 was the health issue more clearly defined. Where laymen had attributed to smoke a wide variety of ailments, from diarrhea to constipation to lethargy to criminality, doctors focused on respiratory diseases and tuberculosis. By "1907, in New York, Cincinnati, and dozens of other cities, middle-class women, physicians, businessmen, and engineers, acting through interest groups, had defined smoke as a problem" (p. 57).
Yet the problem proved intractable. If progressives tried to define pure air as an inalienable right, they faced formidable opponents: the coal, steel, and railroad industries, as well as many manufacturers. City councils might be persuaded to legislate against smoke, but their laws usually faced immediate challenge in court. Cities often needed support from state legislatures to gain the authority to regulate smoke. Yet even those who obtained this right were only moderately effective, because they did not have an affordable technological solution to the problem, other than pressuring companies to use higher grades of coal or to burn it more efficiently. Expertise was needed, and engineers played an increasingly prominent role as inspectors, consultants to industry, and expert advisors to pressure groups. They not only declared that smoke meant inefficient coal burning and helped to set standards for boiler design; some proclaimed, "We are the priests of the new epoch, without superstitions" (p. 85). In the 1890s engineers working for the Pennsylvania Railroad ran tests and experiments on smoke abatement equipment, such as automatic stokers and...