Boycott Disappears With Smoke

Seventy-five years ago St. Louis mounted a great effort to rid itself of air pollution that had plagued the city, and many others throughout North America and Europe, for decades. This is another in a continuing series about that campaign.

By Bob Wyss

The disappearance of black clouds of smoke at noon was not the only hazard that had disappeared so far in St. Louis.

The threatened boycott of St. Louis goods by the citizens of Southern Illinois also had never arrived. Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker was convinced it never would.

“It was easier to talk than to act,” observed Oscar Allison who wrote a 1978 unpublished research paper on the smoke controversy. Further, he said, the boycott was fizzling “because of the enormity of the task of trying to stop trade with St. Louis over such a wide area.”


The boycott may have failed because Illinois coal miners did not suffer the way they had first anticipated.  

Economists have often said that boycotts over political issues can be difficult to sustain. In Illinois the boycott never really ever got off the ground.

Tucker, in speeches and columns in newspapers, argued that there was no economic incentive to sustain the boycott.

Coal purchased by customers in St. Louis only constituted a very small percentage of the commerce of Southern Illinois. The primary businesses at the time were manufacturing and agriculture.

Protesters had argued that St. Louis was putting 35,000 coal miners out of work by its refusal to buy low-grade high sulfur coal.

But Tucker, in an article published in the St. Louis Commerce and later reprinted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, argued that such a number was nothing more than a fantasy.

While Southern Illinois did employ close to 35,000 coal miners (the official number three years earlier had been 27,151), St. Louis was not the region’s only customer.   If St. Louis totally withdrew from the Illinois coal market, Tucker estimated it would only cause 3,250 miners to lose their jobs.

That was not the case. Higher quality coal was still being purchased and even the lower grades were acceptable if customers had the right equipment to reduce emissions.

Therefore, said Tucker, 800 miners was a better estimate.

“Opposed to the welfare of those 800, or even the entire 3,250, must necessarily be placed the welfare of more than 800,000 residents of St. Louis,” wrote Tucker.

Plus, with war underway in Europe and the economy improving nationally and in St. Louis, employment opportunities were rising.

Tucker, in a separate speech in Rollo, Ill. in September 1940 suggested that the net impact likely by that rise in prosperity was at the very least zero. In other words, the 800 jobs lost by the ordinance were cancelled out by an increase in 800 jobs by the improved economy.

Whether Southern Illinois bought that argument did not matter. What did was that Southern Illinois was buying St. Louis products.

The boycott had failed. It would never return.



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