Women Lead and Men Follow

The story so far:  On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents.  Coal dealers and producers had fought changes in the past but on December 5 a gathering of 52 citizens declared that change was coming.

By Bob Wyss

In the late 19th Century and into the early 20th Century women were the leaders in fighting air pollution and men were the laggards.

Civic organizations, such as the Ladies Health Protective Association of Pittsburgh and the Wednesday Club of St. Louis, arose to fight the air pollution in their cities in the late 1800s. The smoke was branded as “evil’ and a threat to the city’s moral and physical well being.  One social reformer of the time said that a “spotless town is a more moral town than an air-polluted town.”


Frances Grenville, a smoke foe

Because women were so powerless at this time (they did not even have the right to vote), they often were not taken seriously.  Women in a campaign in Pittsburgh were accused of fighting the smoke because they were worried about their complexion.  When women in Chicago offered to help the city identify smokestacks emitting the worst pollution, a cartoon in a newspaper depicted women in elaborate hats, perched on rooftops, working on their needlepoint as smoke spewed from chimneys.

As Henry Obermeyer, the author of Stop That Smoke explained, in any city the public leaders preferred not to see the smoke, or if they did, to only view it in a positive light.  Obermeyer would quote them somewhat facetiously as saying “Our smoke is the symbol of our prosperity.  Whatever we think among ourselves, for Heaven’s sake don’t talk about it or you’ll scare everybody away.”

There were a few powerful women who lent their support to the cause of fighting air pollution.  Frances “Daisy” Grenville, the countess of Warwick and one time lover of Queen Victoria’s son and crown prince, supported one such campaign in England.  She was quoted at the time as declaring “It is really as great a crime to pour poison into one’s neighbor’s lungs as it is to put poison in his coffee.”

In St. Louis the Wednesday Club, an elite women’s group, created the city’s first smoke control ordinance in 1893. Women’s organizations in the 1920s created the Citizens’ Smoke Abatement League that raised $200,000 (the equivalent of $2.5 million in today’s economy) to launch an educational program aimed at convincing both industry and consumers to try cleaner-burning fuels.

The smoke was everywhere.  It affected the skin, a person’s clothes and even their hair. S.A. Sperber, past president of the National Hairdressers and Cosmetologists’ Association, said the increased sulfur in the air caused dry and brittle hair.  Beauty parlors used extra oils in shampoos but women with blonde or light-colored hair still had to visit far more often that dark-haired women.  “Sulfur in the smoke turns white hair yellow,” said Sperber.  “And as for the blondes – how many lovely blondes have we turned out bright and shining who come back after a few days and complain that we couldn’t have done our job well.”  Men were more stoic, but Sperber said that anyone who put up with smoke-infested brittle hair all winter paid a price, increasing the likelihood of hair follicles falling out and baldness.

But women did not just fret about their skin or their hair.  Many worried about their children.

Health records showed that infant mortality rates were far higher in urban than rural areas.  Dr. W.A. Brend, who had studied those figures in England, said that “a smoky and dusty atmosphere” transcended all other influences related to the discrepancy in infant deaths.

New York City Health Commissioner Shirley Wynne – one of the few women in an authority position at the time, was very worried about the decades of delay in clamping down on air pollution in New York and elsewhere.  “Unless we stop air pollution, we may look forward to a sickly, deformed generation which industry itself has cheated out of the right to healthful development,” she said.

Finally now in St. Louis the smoke and air pollution had been so great that virtually everyone was talking about it. And the women kept applying the pressure when they could. Later that year an exclusive St. Louis women’s organization broke one of its rules that prohibited any men from attending its gatherings. It invited Mayor Bernie Dickmann to its annual fundraising performance.  The hit of the show was a woman who periodically wandered into the other skits, seemingly lost.  At first she was wearing a white dress but as the performance continued her apparel and skin took on darker and darker tones, until she arrived in her final appearance quite blackened from the coal smoke that everyone feared.

The first meeting of Dickmann’s new Smoke Elimination Committee was scheduled to convene in two days – on December 13.  Would Dickmann finally break down and invite a woman to participate in the deliberations?


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