“Smoke evil” is what Utahns began calling the diabolical smoky and sooty air that engulfed Salt Lake City, especially during winter months, dating back to before the twentieth century. The Wasatch Front region of Utah, home to most of the state’s population, has a long history of poor air quality and civic action focused on cleaning up the air. The J. Willard Marriott Library’s new digital exhibit The History of Air Quality in Utah chronicles the state’s unique air pollution problems and was developed in collaboration with Logan Mitchell, affiliate professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah and climate scientist and energy analyst at Utah Clean Energy. The exhibit builds upon Mitchell’s research article, The History of Air Quality in Utah: A Narrative Review published in the journal Sustainability in 2022 (see @theU “Air you can chew”).
Utahns have been pushing for improved air quality for over a century and have battled differing sources of pollution over the years. During the early to mid-20th century the widespread use of coal combustion to heat homes and buildings in the Salt Lake region’s bowl-like topography created some of the worst air quality in the world (see Utah’s Air Quality History pages). “Understanding Utah’s air quality history offers perspective on contemporary environmental issues,” said Luke Seaver, Digital Exhibits Assistant and senior majoring in History, who researched historical materials to develop the exhibit. “Air quality has been a major social concern since the 1880s, and despite the persistence of poor air quality, substantial improvements have been made during that time. Despite its challenges, Utah’s air quality history is a hopeful one.”
Exhibit features women leading air quality reform
While everyone wanted cleaner air, pollution impacted segments of society differently. It was women, the homemakers who were responsible for trying to keep homes and laundry clean of soot and residue from filthy air, who nursed sick family members and who witnessed first-hand the health impacts of the suffocating coal pollution. It was also women who formed clubs and other groups to push for air quality reform during the first half of the twentieth century (see Women’s Environmental Leadership pages).
In the early 1900s, the Ladies Literary Club took aim at enforcing smoke abatement measures and was instrumental in creating a smoke inspection department in SLC to enforce smoke regulations in 1914 (see Ladies Literary Club page).In the 1930s, the clean air movement appealed to women to join the fight for better air quality, as evident in the “Has Science Solved the Smoke Nuisance?” pamphlet published by Alice Merrill Horne, circa 1935. “Because upon women falls the task of attempting to remove the blight of dirt and smoke, they sense smoke’s damage to property, clothing, house-furnishings, houses, public buildings” (see full pamphlet in the Smokeless Fuel Federation of Utah page).
The Salt Lake Women’s Chamber of Commerce (WCOC) was formed in 1936 with the mission to eliminate coal smoke pollution by building a “smokeless coal” processing plant in Utah. The first and only Salt Lake WCOC President, Cornelia Sorenson Lund, led the extensive campaign to rid Salt Lake City of its smoke nuisance problem. The Salt Lake WCOC also petitioned homemakers for support since “the tary [sic] matter present in smoke and soot causes it to adhere to windows, curtains, and drapes causing lots of household drudgery” (see Salt Lake Women’s Chamber of Commerce page for the full “Crusade Against Smoke” handout).
“The women’s clubs who rallied for cleaner air along the Wasatch Front were a force of highly organized and strategic environmentalists who never gave up. Their efforts are inspiring and an important legacy to Utah’s environmental leadership,” reflected Rachel Wittmann, Digital Curation Librarian at the Marriott Library, who delved into women’s clubs’ documents for the exhibit.
Comparing innovation then vs. now
During the days of dense, choking air pollution and public outcry for clean air solutions, advertisements in newspapers reflected the desire for a smokeless city. Ads ran for furnaces purporting to “burn the smoke” and fuels that emitted less pollution. Like today, consumers were responsible for upgrading appliances and making premium purchases that claimed to be better for the environment. Today, converting to renewable energy sources and electrification of home appliances and vehicles are the next step to emission reductions. We now have government rebate incentives and organizations advocating for policy changes to achieve better air quality in Utah (see Then and Now – Innovation and Consumer Cost page).
Looking to Utah’s air quality future
Understanding Utah’s air quality history gives context to where Utah is today, and what the future holds. Over the last century, incremental technology improvements reduced emissions and today Utah’s air quality is cleaner than at any time since the late 1800s. But, there is still a long way to go to truly clean up the air and now there is also an urgent need to address the changing climate. There is a case for rational optimism, however, because zero emission technologies are taking off, from electric vehicles and heat pumps to clean energy generation in solar, wind and a host of emerging technologies that include batteries, geothermal, nuclear and much more. Mitchell weighs in on how Utah’s history informs our present and could shape our future “Utah’s history of working to improve air quality is a vital asset because we have a deep, personal understanding that environmental stewardship is critical for prosperous communities.” (see Utah’s Future page).
Collaboration across Utah archives used for digital exhibit
The History of Air Quality in Utah digital exhibit not only showcases archival materials from the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections and historical newspaper articles from the Utah Digital Newspapers project but archives from around the state were sourced for valuable materials pertaining to Utah’s air quality history. Brigham Young University’s Tom Perry Special Collections at the Harold Lee Library, Utah Division of State History, Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement (see Resource page for the full list).