Hoosier Women’s Fight for Clean Air

William A. Oates, South Indianapolis, 1967, Indianapolis Star, December 3, 1967, accessed newspapers.com

On February 5, 1970, the Franklin Daily Journal in Franklin, Indiana proclaimed air pollution the “Disease of the Seventies.” It predicted that “gas masks, domed cities, special contact lenses to prevent burned eyes” would become “standard equipment if life is to exist” by 2000, unless action against widespread air pollution was taken soon.

Neal Boenzi, New York City Smog, 1966, accessed Wikipedia.

The Daily Journal’s predictions were not off mark. Dense smog filled with toxic pollutants had already killed and sickened thousands of people in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948, in London in 1952, and New York City in 1966. By the late 1960s, this type of deadly smog had begun to appear in nearly every metropolitan area in the US.

However, it’s now 2017, no gas masks, domed cities, or protective eye wear needed. Why? You can thank Hoosier women, who fought for air pollution control measures since the 1910s.

Comic that appeared in the Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1968, accessed newspapers.com

Women first entered the fight against coal to combat air pollution. When burned, coal releases a significant amount of smoke and soot. Londoners began burning coal for fuel as early as the 1200s. Virtually every Londoner relied on coal for fuel and heat by the 1600s as England’s forests became depleted. As industries and factories powered by coal emerged across England during the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, many British cities developed air pollution problems. By 1800, a chronic cloud of smoke enveloped London. Soot and smoke dusted the streets, ruined clothing, and corroded buildings.

Major American cities did not escape the smoky air that plagued the Brits. European settlers cleared much of America’s forests for firewood, construction materials, and to make room for crops and cities. As the Industrial Revolution began on the East Coast at the end of the 18th century, industries, homes, and businesses began to rely on coal for heat and power. Dirty air followed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dark smoke palls drifted through many urban areas at noon that reduced visibility to less than a block. The dirty, dark atmosphere caused traffic accidents, injuries, and even death. Doctors increasingly linked the drab, polluted air to depression and tuberculosis.

Indianapolis was no exception. The Indianapolis News reported on February 11, 1904 that “for a year or more, the smoke cloud has constantly been increasing until during the last two or three months, the city has taken a place among the smoke cities of the country and by some visitors is credited with being as dirty as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis.”  That summer, the News described “dense volumes of black soot and smoke” blowing through business and residential districts across the city. A journalist wrote “Eyes and lungs are filled and as for wearing clean linen any length of time, that is one of the impossibilities.” The journalist noted that the smoke damaged goods in downtown shops and observed “every article in them to be thickly dotted with soot.”

“Aerial View of Indianapolis, 1913,” Panoramic Photograph Images, Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections.

Despite these issues, fighting smoke pollution in Indiana would be hard. Coal is one of Indiana’s natural resources and became a mainstay of the Hoosier economy during the early 20th century. It was discovered along the Wabash River in 1736. Organized coal production began in the 1830s and after World War I, production exceeded 30 million tons. Furthermore, coal and the smoke it produced became a symbol for economic prosperity nationwide. Often, postcards and promotional imagery for cities featured pictures of smokestacks emitting billowing, black clouds of smoke across the urban landscape. A writer for the Indianapolis News in defense of coal wrote in 1906, “But if the coal smokes, let it smoke . . . Wherever there is smoke there is fire, and the flames that make coal smoke brighten the world of industry and bring comfort to the untold hundreds of thousands of toilers. Let it smoke. The clouds of smoke that ascend to heaven are the pennants of prosperity.”

Bledsoe Coal Company Mine near Center Point, Indiana, 1931, Martin’s Photo Shop Collection, Indiana Historical Society Digital Images Collection

Indiana produces bituminous coal, a soft coal that often creates a lot of smoke when burned. Many cities had begun to abate smoke pollution simply by requiring residents and industry to burn anthracite coal, a harder coal that burned cleaner. Since bituminous coal was a major source of wealth for Indiana, many Indianapolis residents and businessmen did not want to take this course of action, even though they did support cleaner air for the city.

One method to abate smoke, but still burn Indiana bituminous coal was to install automatic stoking devices in factories and homes. These devices distributed the coal in furnaces more evenly so it produced less smoke. In 1904, the American Brewing Company on Ohio Street downtown installed one of these devices. According to the Indianapolis News, this device allowed the company to burn just as much bituminous Indiana coal as it had last year, but produce far less smoke: the journalist described the company’s smokestacks as “practically smokeless.”

However, few businesses followed in the American Brewing Company’s footsteps. In 1910, Indianapolis women formed the Smoke Abatement Association operating under the slogan “Better and Cleaner Indianapolis” to try to get housewives and manufacturers to stop burning bituminous coal. These women became part of a nationwide movement of middle and upper class housewives practicing “Civic Motherhood” or “Municipal Housekeeping” that drew on women’s traditional roles as protectors of the home. These women reformers argued they could use their skills as household managers to improve the health of the communities their families lived in and thus began to participate in political discussions surrounding health, pollution, and sanitation, like air pollution.

Announcement from Smoke Abatement Association, Indianapolis Star, January 31, 1911, p. 16, accessed newspapers.com

The group first asked women to reduce smoke produced in their homes by installing smoke control devices. The group offered demonstrations for proper coal firing and issued reports on local residences and factories that issued a lot of smoke. In 1913, the group succeeded in getting a city ordinance passed which banned burning bituminous coal in a downtown district bordered by Maryland Street, East Street, New York Street, and Capitol Avenue. To honor Indiana’s coal production industry, bituminous coal could be burned if a smoke prevention device was installed. It was hoped this ordinance would create a clean, smoke free section of the city to improve health and help merchants preserve goods otherwise ruined by the sooty air.

“Our Three Lines of National Defense,” World War I Propaganda Poster, accessed http://www.ww1propaganda.com/

Though the Smoke Abatement Association remained active throughout the 1910s, US entry into World War I reverted smoke pollution’s image. Black and gray smoke churning out of smokestacks once again became symbolic of progress, this time in support of the war effort. Throughout the 1920s until the 1950s, air pollution remained regulated at the local level; state and federal governments largely remained aloof of the issue.


However, a more complex air pollution emerged in the 1940s that became a struggle for locals to solve on their own. In the summer of 1940, a thick eye-stinging, tear-producing, throat-irritating haze never before experienced enveloped Los Angeles. Though it eventually cleared, episodes continued as America entered World War II: the effects on health were so irritating, some Los Angelinos speculated it was a chemical attack from the Japanese. The problem persisted into 1943: various industries were suspected of causing the issue, but when they were shut down, the harmful air remained. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, this phenomenon, known increasingly as “smog,” afflicted almost every major urban area in the United States.

Los Angeles Street filled with smog, 1943, accessed http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist383/LosAngeles.html

This was a complex type of pollution: growth in industry during World War II and the postwar era increased the amounts of emissions released into the air from factories as they burned oil and coal to create goods for the war effort, and later refrigerators, household appliances, and other consumer goods. During this time, the development of new chemicals, drugs, pesticides, food additives, and plastics also proliferated the consumer market. When manufactured, these products released a number of synthetic chemicals into the atmosphere that decomposed much more slowly than those emitted by older industries and remained hazardous longer. Lastly, the rise in population and expansion of the suburbs increased the use of automobiles. Cars blew out gasoline vapor that became a major ingredient in smog formation. All these combined emissions created a much more complex air pollution that was much harder to get rid of that would require cooperation from consumers, industry, and government regulation at all levels.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, 1967 Indianapolis Star November 19, 1967, p. 29, accessed newspapers.com

This type of pollution first appeared in Indianapolis in the mid-1940s, but did not become much of a chronic problem until the late 1960s. The pollution became so bad that it stained and eroded the limestone on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown, as well as the façade of the Statehouse. It also became tied to increased rates of emphysema, lung cancer, and other serious diseases. Again, Hoosier women stepped up to try to improve the air in their neighborhoods, communities, and the state at large. They became part of a larger movement of women concerned with air pollution across the country and helped make it a national issue during the 1970s.

Letter League of Women Voters of Indianapolis sent out lobbying for stronger air pollution control, League Bulletin, May 1970, accessed University of Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives.

Many women fought air pollution through the League of Women Voters. League members traditionally conducted extensive research on political issues, conducted educational campaigns, and lobbied local, state and federal governments to make sure appropriate regulation was enacted. League of Women Voters members in Indianapolis, Richmond, and Seymour branches attended and testified at local air quality hearings, wrote to representatives urging more stringent air quality regulations, and sponsored programs and produced literature to teach the public about air pollution, current regulations, and what they could do to improve the solution. For example, these methods encouraged people to stop open burning of waste and carpool, bike, or walk to reduce automobile emissions.

HELP meeting, 1965, Terre Haute Tribune, September 18, 1965, p. 2, accessed newspapers.com

Other women’s groups in the state took similar action. Housewives Effort for Local Progress, or HELP, a women’s group in Terre Haute dedicated to improving the city, took on air pollution as one of its major agendas. They lobbied local commissioners and educated the public on air pollution. The Richmond Women’s Club organized funds to purchase educational materials on air pollution to distribute to local students. Other women joined ecology groups, such as the Environmental Coalition of Metropolitan Indianapolis and fought for the passage of many regulations to control harmful gasses emitted by industry, such as Sulphur oxides. Chairwoman Elaine Fisher summarized the important role of the public in abating pollution: “Industry is pressuring . . . on one side. The only hope is for the public to give equal pressure on the other side.”

These women’s groups, and others across the nation, raised awareness of air pollution and made it a national issue. Most groups encouraged the federal government to get involved with air pollution. Since air pollution spreads across local and state boundaries, it made sense for increased federal oversight to control the issue. It is not a surprise that women’s fight against air pollution coincided with the passage of key federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, which gave federal officials authority over reducing air pollution throughout the nation and the power to set federal emissions states have to comply with. The Clean Air Act has produced purer air for all Americans: since 1970 its regulations reduced the levels of common pollutants, and thus prevented deaths from disease and cancer and decreased damage to plants, crops, and forests previously caused by air pollution. Thank you, Hoosier women.

“Is Your Christmas Tree a Hoosier, too?”

Richard A. Greene, “Christmas Tree Sale,” 1958, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, accessed Indiana Memory.

In 1950, the Indianapolis Star asked its readers “Is your Christmas tree a Hoosier, too?” Turns out, there was a good chance it was. The article reported that by December 17, 1950, Indiana State Forests and private growers had already cut 100,000 pine trees for the Christmas season. How did the state get into the Christmas tree business?

The royal family with their tree in Illustrated London News, December 1848, accessed British Library.

German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to America in the 1700s. However, the practice didn’t catch on for the rest of the nation until the mid-19th century when England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, popularized it. In 1848, an illustration of the royal family celebrating around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. Eventually, putting up a Christmas tree spread from Britain to the United States as individuals sought to emulate the fashionable royal family.

By the time Christmas trees became a relatively common American tradition, American forests were dwindling, including in Indiana. European-American settlers had cleared much of Indiana’s original 20 million acres of forests for farming, fuel, and lumber by the mid-1800s. As forests disappeared, Americans began to realize the natural resources in their vast country were not inexhaustible. A new conservation ethic emerged, which championed rational use and planning of natural resources, including forests so enough lumber (and of course, Christmas trees) would be available for future generations.

For some, the new conservation ethic clashed with the Christmas tree tradition. How could conservationists approve chopping down hundreds of thousands of trees every December for the holiday festivities? According to legend, President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, refused to have a Christmas tree in the White House because he was opposed to excessive lumbering practices. During his presidency, journalists speculated in newspapers whether the Roosevelt family would put up a tree. According to some accounts, in 1902, Roosevelt forbade his family to have a Christmas tree. In retaliation, Roosevelt’s son, Archie hid a tree in a closet, had a White House electrician hang some lights on it, and surprised his family with it on Christmas Day.

Unlike the Roosevelts, President Grover Cleveland and his family celebrated with a Christmas tree in the White House, 1894, accessed whitehousehistory.org.
Early advertisement for a Christmas Eve Festival in Indianapolis, Indianapolis Star, December 24, 1863, accessed newspapers.com.

Hoosiers too were conflicted between their new commitment to conservation and love of holiday festivities. The first advertisements for Christmas trees for sale appeared in Indiana newspapers around the 1860s. At the same time, Christmas parties or festivals for children, all featuring Christmas trees and gift giving, began to be held.

On the other hand, Indiana started its state forestry program in 1901 and established the state’s first forest reservation in Clark County, later known as the Clark State Forest, in 1903. The state began experimental plantings at the state forest in 1904 to determine the trees best suited to Indiana soils and thus reforest the state.

“The Artificial Tree,” Indianapolis Journal, December 10, 1903, accessed newspapers.com.

As state foresters slowly repopulated the state with trees, Hoosiers debated whether they could be conservationists, without also being a Scrooge. James S. Whipple, state forest, fish, and game commissioner issued a statement in 1907 encouraging families to use artificial trees instead of cutting down young evergreen trees for the holidays. Whipple said “To destroy millions of these trees every year when we are in such need of more timber in this country . . . seems very wasteful.”

In 1911, the Angola Herald of Angola, Indiana printed an article titled “Sacrifice of the Christmas Trees,” complete with several photos of logging operations. One photo of a pile of freshly cut pines next to trucks laden with logs was captioned “Defacing Nature for a Night’s Pleasure.” The article asked “Will the children in 1925 have Christmas trees? . . . Indications point to the supposition that within the next 15 years the supply of the evergreen trees with which we deck our living rooms annually at the feast of St. Nicholas will be so small that folk in ordinary walks of life will not be able to afford a tree.” The article noted that trees were so scarce on the east coast and Midwest, most Christmas trees had to be imported from Canada.

Angola Herald, December 13, 1911, p. 2 accessed newspapers.com.

Luckily, most Hoosier conservationists recognized the beloved Christmas tree could be used to advance forestry in the state. Frank N. Wallace, the state entomologist, frankly told the Indianapolis News in 1924 “Let’s have Christmas trees.” Wallace said he believed the Christmas tree custom “can be utilized as a boom to forestation, for the American Christmas traditions are built around the tree and in order that future generations may have the privileges of the present generation,” the present generation must support reforestation. The next year, esteemed botanist and state forester Charles C. Deam encouraged the local communities to begin growing enough Christmas trees to satisfy local demand. Deam noted that large waste lands unsuitable for agriculture all over Indiana could be used to grow common Christmas tree varieties, including Norway spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, and Douglas fir. Since prices on imported fir and spruce had increased that year by 30%, Christmas tree farming could be quite profitable for the Hoosier economy.

Christmas trees trucked out at Morgan-Monroe State Forest (Martinsville, Indiana), Outdoor Indiana, December 1957, accessed Indiana University Digital Collections.
Part of Kern Christmas Tree farm in Fulton County, Outdoor Indiana, December 1964, accessed Indiana University Digital Collections.

Christmas tree farms began to spread across the state, especially after World War II. State foresters provided guidance on forestry management, tree trimming and cutting. Farmers could jumpstart their Christmas tree farm by purchasing and planting pine seedlings nurtured at one of several state forests. However, farmers had to be dedicated; growing a Christmas tree was time consuming. In 1964, Outdoor Indiana featured the Bob Kern Christmas Tree Farm in Fulton County, Indiana. Kern established his farm in about 1947. He managed 400 acres of Scotch and white pine, as well as other species of spruce and fir. Kern emphasized Christmas tree growing was so difficult because farmers had to pay particular attention to cultivating richly colored, symmetrical trees that consumers would want in their homes. Weeds had to kept down and each tree pruned to its desired taper. Furthermore, a six foot tree generally took at least six years to grow. Since it took so much time to produce just one tree, seedlings had to be planted soon after a tree was cut to replace it.

Bob Kern and his wife shearing Christmas trees to get them in the perfect shape. Notice the stark difference between sheared (left) and unsheared (right). Outdoor Indiana, December 1964, accessed Indiana University Digital Collections.

While Christmas trees survived the conservation era, similar doubts arose in the 1970s during the environmental movement. Postwar affluence fueled by factories, cars, and consumer goods resulted in increasingly polluted water, air, and land. Growing numbers of people, including Hoosiers, lobbied for stronger environmental legislation and adopted new practices, like recycling, to reduce their impact on their natural surroundings. Some still worried cutting down trees for the holidays had a detrimental impact on the environment.

EJ Lott, Purdue University Extension forester assured environmentalists in 1972 that for every tree cut, two or three more were planted the next spring to replace it. He emphasized that “an acre of growing Christmas trees will produce daily oxygen requirements for 18 people.” Furthermore, tree plantations provided not only aesthetically pleasing landscapes, but quality habitats for wildlife. In reality, Christmas trees were a crop, just like soybeans or corn. As long as consumers bought trees, Christmas tree farmers would plant even more to replace those they harvested. As the Herald of Jasper Indiana noted succinctly,

If there was no market for Christmas trees, growers would not plant them. Enjoy your tree.

League of Women Voters and youth group tagging trees with recycling tags at Higbee’s Christmas Tree Farm in Anderson, Indiana, Anderson Herald November 29, 1975,  accessed newspapers.com.

Environmentalists also attempted to halt the tendency to burn or throw out Christmas trees once the holidays were over. Various groups in Indiana began fitting Christmas trees into the new “reduce, reuse, recycle” attitude. In Anderson, Indiana, the League of Women Voters started a tree recycling program in 1972.  Instead of throwing out old Christmas trees, they would be chopped up into chips for mulch that could be used later in landscaping and gardening. The Anderson Daily Bulletin noted that “by recycling these trees, we’re not wasting a valuable natural resource and actually are saving taxpayers’ money by not using up much-needed space in the city landfill.” To raise awareness, League of Women Voters members put tags on Christmas trees for sale that asked future owners to recycle the tree once the Christmas season was over. In 1973, the group reported that they had recycled over 700 trees. In a letter to the editor featured in the Anderson Daily Bulletin, the co-chairman of the group wrote “While other cities were still burning trees, Anderson was taking a step forward in ecology.” Other organizations encouraged the purchase of living Christmas trees that one could replant in a park or their backyard after the holiday season was over.

Schneider Nursery advertisement, The Tribune [Seymour, Indiana], December 22, 1973, accessed newspapers.com
Some practices from the conservation era and environmental movement endure in Indiana. Today, the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association recommends buying a Hoosier tree to support the local economy and recycling it after the holidays. The Association lists almost 50 Hoosier Christmas tree farms on its website. It also notes Indiana ranks 11th in the nation for Christmas tree production, and produces 200,000 harvestable trees a year. Apparently, a lot of people can still say their tree is a Hoosier, too.

“Family cutting down a Christmas tree, Beech Grove, Indiana, ca. 1960,” The Indiana Album: Historic Photographs from the Attic to the Web, accessed Indiana Memory