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
What does it take to convince everyone in a city to spend more money to stay warm in the winter?
A massive public relations campaign in the summer.
The campaign was primarily led by city Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker with strong support from all three of the city’s newspapers, but especially the Post-Dispatch, and also the city’s radio stations.
Asked to spend more to end decades of pollution, the response was an overwhelming yes.
“In my opinion, smoke elimination in St. Louis is the most important happening since the filtration of water,” said H.C. Hartkoff, president of the Cass Bank and Trust Co. of St. Louis, in a public letter. “I hope that the new ordinance now in effect will show visible effects this coming winter.”
Tucker began his campaign with a Clean Air Exposition hosted by his office and the local Chamber of Commerce. Merchants and dealers of natural gas, heating oil, heaters, boilers and related stokers, as well as coal products with reduce emissions, set up booths to hawk their products.
So did Tucker, whose booth showed films of how his office would be operating and enforcing the city’s new ordinance to reduce coal smoke. Newspapers published advertisements and large spreads in the Sunday magazines and Tucker also was granted air time on the radio stations. He used it to interview various fuel dealers. He was trying to educate the public as much as he could.
While the audience at the exhibit was only about 7,000, he reached countless more on the radio.
Oscar Allison, who wrote about the 1940 crisis in St. Louis in a 1978 unpublished paper, said Tucker realized he had to reach as many people as possible. “He did not leave this work to others. He believed that much of the opposition to the ordinance by common ordinary citizens was based on false information or the lack of adequate information.”
He was on the radio stations, including KSD, KMOX, and KFUO on a regular basis. In a June broadcast on KSD he described St. Louis as a stricken city that was going to have to be aided by virtually all of its residents. “Now that summer is here do not forget our experience of last winter,” he said.
For nearly a year already the Post-Dispatch had adopted smoke pollution as its own newspaper campaign. Even with limited news that summer it still found a way to get the story into the newspaper every day.
Working with Tucker, the newspaper began an Anti-Smoke Roll of Honor in which companies, institutions and even individuals pledged their support to not buy fuel or use equipment that would create air pollution. The first to sign up were many of the local railroads, the schools, and United Charities.
Then real estate and investment firms that owned large or numerous properties in the city were sought out to make their pledges. It seemed that virtually everyday a box with new names was in the newspaper with headlines such as “Many Concerns Pledge Prompt Smoke Cleanup,” “22 Names Are Added to Smoke Honor Roll,” “36 New Pledges In Campaign To Eliminate Smoke.”
“This is one of the most important matters before us for the preservation of property values in St. Louis,” said W. L. Christopher of an investment firm with numerous properties, in his public statement of support.
“I sincerely believe that the stand taken by our city officials in this fight to rid St. Louis of it’s terrible smoke nuisance is commendable and I trust you will keep it up,” wrote George E. Niedt, president of Steelcote Manufacturing Co. when he signed on.
“All power to you,” wrote R. Calvin Dobson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of St. Louis , which vowed not to burn coal.
Even a grand jury was formed, less to investigate than to give its support. In one report it commended the local press for its efforts to publicize the problem.
By the end of the summer hundreds of pledges had been received. But it was one thing to pledge, another to follow through, and everyone knew the true test would only arrive with the coal weather.