As a historian of the Industrial Revolution, I’m almost always pleased to see my research interests resurface in a modern setting. I say “almost” because there has been a recent movement called “coal rolling,” in which trucks are fitted with an apparatus that belches thick black smoke on demand. Preferably, one would “coal roll” a hybrid or electric car; perhaps also someone publicly expressing their environmentalist credentials.
Do coal rollers really want to turn the page back and relive our 19th century industrial past? Probably not. But their professed love of smoke does harken back to an era in American history where the filthy byproducts of burning coal was considered at worst a necessary evil and at best a sign of a prosperous economy. I wrote about this a bit in my new book, Home Fires, and I’m not too proud to use coal rolling as a way to discuss burning coal in the 19th century.
We know that even by 19th century standards, the American city was getting smokier in the years after the Civil War. James Parton wrote of Cincinnati in 1867, “Smoke pervades every house in Cincinnati,” and that it “begrimes the carpets, blackens the curtains, soils the paint, and worries the ladies.” A visitor to St. Louis in the same year noted that “St. Louis abhors whiteness–as nature abhors a vacuum; those perennial showers of soot and that all-pervading smoke takes the edge off of cleanliness ‘right smart.'”
Coal rollers might have loved Pittsburgh in the 19th century, as its residents started griping about smoke and soot as early as 1804. James Parton famously referred to the city as “hell with the lid off.” By the 1880s, one travel writer noted that “nothing darker, dingier, or more dispiriting can be imagined than Pittsburgh. In 1892 the city seemed to one writer as “a place enveloped, defiled, and famous in smoke.” By the 1930s, as the image below demonstrates, you could practically cut Pittsburgh’s smoke with a knife.
Although 19th century Americans complained about coal’s smoke and soot, this pollution had its defenders. At the very least, they argued, coughing, wheezing, and blackened clothes were a small price to pay for economic prosperity. Other apologists tried to argue for smoke’s health benefits. One proud resident of Pittsburgh, for example, told a journalist that bituminous coal smoke killed malaria and cleared the eyes. Coal smoke purified the lungs, others argued, because it was antiseptic. One St. Louis newspaper opined that “The people must have fuel, and the cheapest fuel is coal; and it is not easy to burn coal without producing the annoyance of sooty smoke.”
Smoke abatement did arrive by the 20th century and University of Cincinnati historian Dave Stradling has written an excellent book about the long campaign to address the problem. My guess is that the coal rollers wouldn’t enjoy living in the world that Dave reconstructs in Smokestacks and Progressives. But, you never know. Perhaps the noted journalist Stephen Colbert can shed some light on the subject.