“Inspected Smoke”: The Perpetual
“Isn’t it nice to have inspected smoke?”
— From a 1903 poem
THROUGHOUT the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the term “smoke,” in U.S. and British colloquial usage, referred to the mix of visible and invisible constituents currently known as air pollution. The technical and legal meaning of the term, however, was applied more narrowly to the visible particulate emissions created when coal, burning under conditions of incomplete combustion, released volatile matter in the form of sooty particles made up of unburned carbon, tar, ash, and other compounds.1 In England, control of smoke and gases (noxious vapors) was split between two separate regimes until the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act. Noxious vapors were the responsibility of the Alkali Inspectorate under the Alkali Act, whereas smoke remained under the control of local authorities under the Public Health Act of 1875 (and subsequent legislation).2 In the United States the beginnings of administrative regulation of gases would not come until the early 1950s. Instead, air-pollution regulation (outside of common-law nuisance suits) was applied exclusively to smoke between 1867, when the first municipal antismoke ordinance was passed in the United States, and the post–World War II era.
Enacted by St. Louis, that ordinance required all chimneys to rise twenty feet above surrounding buildings. A Pittsburgh ordinance two years later prohibited locomotives operating within the city from using bituminous coal.3 Types of coal vary in the relative amount of volatile matter they contain and, consequently, in their smoke-producing potential. Whereas the amount of volatile combustible matter is quite low in anthracite (hard) coal, bituminous (soft) coal is high in these substances, and hence in the emissions it causes. Western Pennsylvania’s vast bituminous coal fields were the reason that Pittsburgh and other Midwestern cities became industrial magnets during the mid-1800s, but they were also responsible for these cities’ reputations for smoky air compared to cities such as Philadelphia and New York, where anthracite coal was used predominantly.4Richards’s Appeal (1868), discussed in the previous chapter,