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


Coal At Christmas Brightens

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

Lumps of coal for Christmas?

Some in St. Louis in the winter of 1940-41 welcomed the gift of coal, which was discounted for some and free for others.

The concept of heating assistance to the poor generally was unknown 75 years ago, but it was being discovered in St. Louis. Prices for a basket of coal, about 60 pounds and the only affordable option for anyone of a low income, had doubled since the city had banned cheaper but dirtier coal.

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Efforts were made to make sure Christmas in 1940 in St. Louis was warm and bright.

In late November a group representing a range of low-income residents met with Smoke Commissioner Raymond Tucker seeking to find a way to lower prices. Charles E. Stovall, editor of the St. Louis Call, which was a newspaper for African Americans, proposed that basket sellers could lower their prices if the city could cover their losses.

Baskets, which a year ago had sold for 20 cents, were now selling for 40 cents. Stovall suggested that 25 cents would be affordable.

A few days later Tucker announced a plan that would lower the price of a 60-pound basket to 25 cents. A consortium of 135 coal yards around the city agreed to sell up to four baskets during the winter to residents who could show that they were living on a low or fixed income.

The city earlier in the year had set aside $300,000 to buy coal for poor residents in an emergency. However, under the voluntary plan proposed by the coal yards, that money would not be needed.

Businessman James L. Ford then went a step beyond this, and inspired others to do the same.

Ford won the St. Louis Award, given annually for an outstanding civic achievement. Ford won for his efforts as chairman of the Smoke Elimination Committee which had investigation had to rid the city of the coal smoke that had smothered it for decades each winter.

The award carried a $1,000 which Ford contributed, along with another $500, to a heating fund for low-income residents. This then prompted more donations from the mine operators in Arkansas and Oklahoma, 600 miners in Arkansas, and the Frisco Railroad, which had been carrying the coal to St. Louis.

The coal miners sacrificed a half of a day’s wages, which amounted to $1,500.

The result was that 33,000 baskets of coal were to be distributed to needy families throughout St. Louis. By Christmas eve more than 5,000 families had been identified to receive the free coal. That’s when the first trainloads of coal arrived and coal dealers bustled to get the work done by the end of the day. A second shipment was delivered the day after Christmas.

“We should say this is something unusual, if not unique,” reported the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in the form of Christmas gifts.”