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.”