Coal Price Highest for the Poor

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, a December 5 gathering of 52 citizens declared change was necessary and the new Smoke Elimination Committee met for the first time on December 13 and realized that task would be daunting.  

By Bob Wyss

In the winter of 1939-40 a day in St. Louis often meant a day of darkness.  Smoke blotted out the sun one out of every three days.  Each became just “another daytime night,” Virginia Irwin wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

On one of these dark winter day Irwin ventured into several of the city’s poorest and smoke-blackened neighborhoods.  “Overhead the smoke sewer hung ugly and black,” she reported.  “Hungry children with dirty gray underwear showing where tattered stockings and too-short coats failed to meet were hurrying home from school through the rutted, sooty snow.  Fuel vendors with their wares in bushel baskets chanted mournfully, ‘Co-ul, co-ul, co-ul’.”

Smoke, she found here, was just another burden for those without, a “friend of futility” which battered morale.  Many, when asked how they felt about this smoke-darkened winter, would reply “bread and milk come first.”

Irwin found a junk vendor at Fifteenth and O’Fallen streets.  She said that his hand cart was an ancient vehicle, piled with old cartons, wooden paving blocks, and barrel staves.  The junk dealer invited her to warm her hands over a small tin can hanging from the back with a fire burning in it.  As she did, she asked if the smoke was always this bad in the neighborhood.

“Long’s I can remember has been,” he replied. “They say the city’s going to do something about it, though what it is to be to help folks who hain’t got no money to buy coal, I can’t rightly say.”

A moment later he moved on, putting all of his weight into the cart to get it going.  Irwin noticed that the burlap that was wrapped around his feet flopped in the snow.

A few doors down, between two abandoned tenements, she found a one-room shack where a feathery smoke plume spiraled out of the chimney.  There was what Irwin called “a spry old lady of 80” living there with a cat and a dog.  It was hard for Irwin to get the woman to talk about the smoke, but the woman did offer that “they ought to work some way to get shut of it.  But what can folks like me do?”

On this, the blackest year St. Louis had ever experienced, the smoke blanketed the poor neighborhoods of the Irish, German, Czechs, Slavs, Poles, Bohemians, Italians, Jewish and African Americans. Many of the immigrants were first generation, the blacks from the South, and most had few possessions or money.  The coal smoke did not discriminate by income, it did not favor one class, it did not shun any particular community.  It filtered into the rows of red brick houses, the modest middle class white neighborhoods of the merchants, the office worker, the junior administrators.  And it trickled down the grand boulevards leading west to Forest Park that featured sprawling brick and stone mansions.

Yet the poor still paid the most, not only in pollution, but even in the price of the coal. In much of the city coal was delivered by the ton.  In the poor neighborhoods it was sold by the basket.

Coal dealers would sell from trucks, wagons or even push carts, setting up in strategic locations and advertising their wares by yelling “coal, coal.”  The coal baskets cost from 10 cents to 25 cents, and would usually provide enough fuel for two to three days.  On any one day these customers rarely had more than a quarter to their name for coal.  The mark-up on price was so great that the accumulated price for all of these baskets over course of a winter amount to a price of $5 a ton to $7 a ton.  That was more than double what was paid by those who bought by the ton.

Raymond Tucker, the city’s smoke commissioner, told the Smoke Elimination Committee investigating the pollution that there was another problem with these dealers.  He said many were purposely cheating their customers, purposely adding slate and other innate rock into the coal.  While the city regulated the trade by licensing dealers and inspecting their loads there were always some that seemed to slip by.  “We have men on the street at ten and eleven o’clock at night, at three or four in the morning, but unless you have 24-hour shifts you cannot stop these fly-by-night truckers,” said Tucker.

Virginia Irwin of the Post-Dispatch spent the day roaming these neighborhoods, hearing the same stories.  As dusk arrived the smoke thickened as chimneys warmed with supper fires.  A woman walked out of a doorway and dumped ashes in the gutter.  A bum spat on the sidewalk.   “Another St. Louis sunless day,” reported Irwin, “was done.”


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