Corner of Liberty and Fifth Avenues at 8:38 AM in Pittsburg in 1940

Corner of Liberty and Fifth avenues at 8:38 a.m. in Pittsburgh in 1940. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

These days when we think of eye-watering, lung-blackening smog, it's usually Chinese cities that come to mind. Air quality was so bad there that during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, a significant fraction of the country's power generation, industrial production, and transport sector was shut down to allow athletes to breathe half-decent air and perform well.

Smokey traffic in Pittsburgh, circa 1930s

Traffic in Pittsburgh, circa 1930s. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

But China's not special; the country is just industrializing at a rapid pace. The situation was similar in many areas of the United States not so long ago, as these photos from Pittsburgh in the 1940s show clearly. They were taken right before "smoke control" laws took effect.

Factory smoke billows out into Pittsburgh at miday in 1940.

Factory smoke billows out into Pittsburgh at midday in 1940. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

Don't miss the photos at the end that show how whole buildings had to be steam-cleaned to remove the grime, and the "after" shots that show how much better the air quality was in Pittsburgh after the law took effect.

Smoke lingers over downtown Pittsburgh sometime in the 1930s.

Smoke lingers over downtown Pittsburgh sometime in the 1930s. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

Looking back, it might seem obvious that making efforts to clean the air was a good idea, but at the time there was no consensus. As with tobacco, there was a powerful lobby spreading misinformation (“smoke is good for the lungs” or “it helps crops grow”) to keep things the same.

Automobiles parked in smoke in Pittsburgh in 1940

Automobiles parked in smoke in Pittsburgh in 1940. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

Interestingly, the costs of enacting clean air regulations in Pittsburgh — a city where winters are cold and require a lot of fuel to keep buildings warm — were relatively low because cleaner furnaces and boilers were also much more efficient than the old dirty models. So the net heating costs were about what they were before, but big improvements in quality of life and health, while not quantified in dollar amounts, surely pushed the balance far into positive territory. In other words, people were rewarded to clean up the air.

People walk along the corner of Liberty and Fifth Avenues in Pittsburgh in 1940

People walk along the corner of Liberty and Fifth avenues in Pittsburgh in 1940. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

Sounds like a good deal. Here’s the before & after shot:

A Pittsburgh newspaper offers a study in contrast of the Federal Building on Black Tuesday, November 1939 (left), before the new smoke laws. The right image shows it November 1940 after the smoke laws passed.

A Pittsburgh newspaper offered a study in contrast of the Federal Building on Black Tuesday, November 1939  (left), before the new smoke laws. The right image shows it November 1940 after the smoke laws passed. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

Here’s how city workers had to steam-clean entire buildings to remove grime that had accumulated from all the constant smog:

The Allegheny County Courthouse in 1945

The Allegheny County Courthouse in 1945. The darker parts of the building are sections that have not been cleaned. (Photo: Smoke Control Lantern Slide Collection, ca. 1940-1950/Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh. Used with permission.)

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