Toll Mounts to Keep St. Louis Clean

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.  Through January they were meeting regularly while newspapers were detailing how the smoke was damaging St. Louis.

By Bob Wyss

In the Mudd household every Monday was black.

“Every week we have what we call Black Monday,” Mrs. Harvey Mudd told a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  “Cook housemaid and outside help turn to.  I drive my own car while the chauffeur turns houseman.  They scrub, polish, vacuum clean.”

The house had 50 windows.  Half were washed one week.  The balance was washed the following week.  Rugs were periodically cleaned, as was the wall paper.  There were two sets of curtains, two sets of slip covers.  One set was in place while the other set was being washed.

“Of course, when one buys house furnishings in St. Louis,” Mrs. Mudd added, one cannot buy for beauty.  First one must ask, will it wash, will it clean, is it a color that won’t show the dirt.”

The Post-Dispatch writer was Marguerite Martyn and in her story she discovered that no matter the income, smoke was crippling St. Louis.

It should not have been a surprise.

The Citizens Smoke Abatement League in 1926 had estimated that the total costs of smoke and the damage it was causing to the city was $19,147,000.  Today that figure calculated for inflation would be $250 million.

Households paid a significant price in the extra cost of painting, cleaning and restoring wallpaper, curtains and the need for additional lighting – $4,940,000.

The additional cost just of doing the laundry and dry cleaning was $2,432,000 more than what it would cost in New York, Philadelphia or Boston.

Meanwhile the city’s 10,000 retail stores were paying an additional $6,400,000 not just in cleaning costs but in the loss of merchandise and service from the smoke.  Public buildings, including hotels, hospitals and government buildings were paying another $600,000.

One woman, Jacqueline Seward, told Marguerite Martyn that she was paying $30 a month for dry cleaning but worried that soon the dry cleaners might have to shut down if the smoke persisted.

Some had shut down on the infamous Black Tuesday in late November when the city was blanketed with coal smoke.

Martyn talked to the owner of one laundry company that had temporarily closed.

“We use a lot of air blown in from the outside in our drying process,” the owner explained.  “Even with filters the smoke so filled the place things were dirtier after they had been dried than before we started cleaning them, so we closed down until the smoke pall cleared away.”

Smoke was not good for the laundry business.  On bright, sunny days people wanted to look fresh and clean.  On a dark, smoky day, people took the attitude that it was worthless to clean their clothes, they would only get dirty again.

But Mrs. Seward for one had no plans to cease her cleaning.  In certain rooms she had installed window frames with muslin to screen the air.  She cleaned those screens once a week, and each week she found them incredibly filthy.

The screens were a last resort to protect her three-year-old son, Dwight.  Until she installed them, or closed the windows entirely, he would wake up in the middle of the night choking.

In all of the numbers compiled so far, no one had tried to estimate the cost of the health of St. Louis.  That tabulation was coming.

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