A Christmas Gift For St. Louis in 1940 – Clear Skies And No War Worries Yet

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

Christmas 1939 in St. Louis had been shrouded by clouds of acrid black smoke.

Christmas 1941 in St. Louis would be clouded by war and the recent attack in Pearl Harbor.

Christmas 1940, 75 years ago, was a wonderful respite.

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A clear day in St. Louis in the early 1940s

They called it the smokeless Christmas. The skies had remained mostly clear and residents were beginning to praise the city’s efforts to reduce air pollution by forcing them to buy cleaner-burning coal. Christmas cards and thank you letters were arriving at City Hall praising Mayor Bernard Dickmann for his efforts.

A.V. Imba, who ran a manufacturing plant, compared the city’s drive towards cleaner air with an earlier effort to provide clean water for St. Louis. Visitors were beginning to notice, he said.

“I experienced the delightful sensation of listening to two men say most complimentary things about the cleanliness of St. Louis,” he told Dickmann.

Ella Myers, who sold baskets of coal to the poor, said that at the beginning of the season customers were complaining about the higher prices she was charging for the cleaner coal. “But they changed their minds,” she wrote, “as they used the coal and got more heat and less dirt. We as housewives got something to be proud of. By Christmas last year I washed curtains three or four times. This year at Christmas it was not necessary to wash curtains put up in September.”

Charles Nagel Jr. was an architect who suffered from asthma the last three winters when the coal smoke had been thick. “I noticed a change this year,” he wrote. “But I feared to write earlier lest it prove premature. Now, however, there can be no doubt of the success of your efforts. The city is a different place already.”

A barber, John Gartner, wrote: “If the majority of those who travel about our streets would only express their sentiments as vociferously as they did their denunciation.” He added: “All of us are indebted to you for the firm stand you took. Health demands pure air. People are not coughing as they did.”

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A clear day and a smoggy day in Beijing in the 21st Century is very similar to the contrasts that St. Louis experienced more than 75 years ago.

Louis J. Nicolaus was an investment banker who had considered moving out of the city to a farm that he owned. No more. “I cannot tell you how wonderful it is living as I do at Delmar and Taylor to be relieved of smoke nuisances. I know this feeling is shared by many citizens.”

Mrs. Charles H. Wagner called the clear skies “a grand thing.” Campaigns to stop the city’s smoke had been discussed for years, she told the mayor, “but nothing was done until you got busy.”

“You deserve hearty congratulations from all, particularly those who have to work in the downtown district daily,” wrote Eugene F. Williams, president of his own firm. He called the winter “a great joy.”

Even a poem was dictated by one caller to the mayor’s office.

Hurrah for our Mayor

And pure air

May Christmas be clear

All the New Year

Without smoke


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