Glimpses into Pittsburgh’s Smoky Skies and Everyday Lives in the 1940s and 1950s

Pittsburgh, often referred to as the “Steel City,” was a hub of industrial activity in the United States, especially in the first half of the 20th century. During the 1940s and 1950s, the city’s economy was heavily reliant on steel production, a process intrinsically linked to coal usage.

Coal was the primary energy source driving the industrial machines and furnaces in Pittsburgh. It powered steel mills, factories, and even homes. This dependence on coal had a significant environmental and health impact on the city and its residents.

The Environmental Impact

Pittsburgh’s skies were frequently darkened by thick clouds of coal smoke. This smoke was a byproduct of the burning of coal in numerous industrial and residential sites. The dense, sooty fog was so prevalent that daytime often resembled twilight. The city experienced regular fallout of soot and ash, which coated buildings, streets, and vehicles. This fallout was not just an inconvenience; it also posed a serious threat to public health and the cleanliness of the city.

Health and Quality of Life

The constant presence of coal smoke in the air led to widespread respiratory problems among Pittsburgh’s residents. Issues such as chronic bronchitis and asthma were common, particularly in children and the elderly. The smoggy conditions affected daily life in various ways. Laundry hung out to dry would often become soiled by soot, and streetlights sometimes had to be kept on during the day. Visibility was frequently reduced, impacting transportation and outdoor activities.

Response and Regulation

The severe environmental and health issues led to a growing public outcry in Pittsburgh. Residents and civic groups began to demand action against the pollution. This period saw an increased awareness of the need for environmental regulations.

In response to the public demand, local government officials enacted several anti-pollution laws. These included regulations on the types of coal that could be burned and mandates for industrial smoke control. The city also invested in cleaner technologies for steel production and energy generation.

The Transition

By the late 1950s, Pittsburgh started to transition to cleaner energy sources. Natural gas and oil began to replace coal in many industries and homes. This shift was instrumental in reducing the coal smoke problem. The steel industry in Pittsburgh also underwent modernization, adopting new technologies that were less reliant on coal. These changes contributed

#1 Cars parked on Monongahela Wharf under an overpass in smoke.

#2 Pedestrians and tram lines in a smoky, dark midday street scene.

#3 Dense smoke obscuring a bridge and distant buildings.

#4 Koppers Coal and Gulf Oil buildings in heavy smoke, viewed from ground level.

#5 Two men by traffic under a bridge, third man leaning over a car, sun visible through smoke.

#6 Factory chimney emitting smoke in Pittsburgh, contributing to severe air pollution.

#7 Sun visible through thick smoke beside a silhouetted church steeple.

#8 Silhouetted man in hat against a smoky traffic scene near Downtown and Liberty Avenue.

#9 Church steeple obscured by dense smoke, sun barely visible.

#10 Two businessmen smoking cigarettes on Liberty and Fifth Avenues, busy street scene.

#11 600 block of Liberty Avenue with light smoke, busy street scene with various stores.

#12 Elevated view of Liberty and Fifth Avenues with clock, busy street scene in smoke.

#13 Workmen cleaning soot off bricks, “Jenny” cleaning machine and Ford truck in background.

#14 Steam locomotive #9901 expelling smoke at a railway station.

#15 Pittsburgh’s smog, once seen as a symbol of industrial progress.

#16 Saint Louis Civil Courts Building before smoke ordinance, aerial view in heavy smoke.

#17 Man cleaning Allegheny County Courthouse exterior, another smoking near a cleaning machine.

#18 View of Liberty Tunnels’ North end, heavy smoke, and traffic scene.

#19 Saint Louis street before smoke ordinance, featuring various signs and a traffic-directing officer.

#20 St. Louis view with Art Deco and Southwestern Bell Telephone Buildings, smoke investigation study.

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Written by Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark is a historian and writer who is passionate about sharing the stories and significance behind historical photos. He loves to explore hidden histories and cultural contexts behind the images, providing a unique insight into the past.

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  1. My grandfather and uncles said they changed their shirt midday. At lunch. Then maybe after work. They said they had to look crisp and fresh doing business and the air was so bad their shirts were dirty.

    Also fascinating is I had family that lived in homes on city hills that never had views of the city growing up. It was not until after Pghs air cleared that the homes got the amazing views that there are now.

    I believe it. When we had the fire smoke settle down over Pittsburgh my great aunt scoffed. Shes almost 100. She thought we were being silly making kids stay in because it was “barely anything”.

    Older individuals, those who are over 85 remember a very different city. Theyre always fascinating to speak with.