Women in Utah have been advocating for clean air for a century

A virtual exhibit at the U. shows the advocacy against pollution going back decades.

Bad air days aren’t a new phenomenon in Utah. A century ago, Utahns had a term for the smoky, soot-filled air around them: “Smoke evil.”

With the Utah pollution, advocacy for making the air better has also been around more than a century — and that struggle is on display in a new digital exhibition at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

Logan E. Mitchell, one of the creators of the exhibit (which can be viewed online), said the idea came when he was writing a research paper.

“I was trying to say air quality has been a major concern in Utah since ‘x’ date and I was like ‘I don’t know what that date is,’” said Mitchell, who is affiliate professor of atmospheric science at the U., and climate scientist at Utah Clean Energy. He and Rachel Jane Wittmann, a digital curation librarian, created the exhibit.

That research paper — “The History of Air Quality in Utah: A Narrative Review,” co-authored by Mitchell and Chris A. B. Zajchowski — goes along with the digital exhibit, which gives a broad view of the history of air quality in Utah, with a particular focus on women’s advocacy.

The exhibit summarizes that during “the first half of the 20th century, women across the United States became environmentalists, urging for cleaner cities and air.” In those days, use of cheap coal to power factories and other home utilities created poor winter air quality.

“The Wasatch Front region of Utah suffered from exceptionally high amounts of smoke and soot fall during this time from what we now understand as ‘winter inversions, due to the region’s unique topography,’” the exhibit adds.

The exhibit notes that it was women of Utah — through such groups as the Ladies’ Literary Club, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the Utah Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Salt Lake Council of Women — that came together in an effort to reduce smoke in the Salt Lake Valley. The women, the exhibit argues, saw the problem because they were the homemakers tasked with cleaning the soot and other pollutants out of their homes and belongings.

“One hundred years ago, they were really focused on getting better appliances that worked better and had better fuel quality,” Mitchell said. “The technology has changed and improved dramatically, but some of the techniques are the same.”

Advocacy back then, he added, included sharing research on best practices in cities around the world. This included distributing thousands of pamphlets to women in many cities, providing tips on how to operate stoves without emitting dense clouds of smoke.

“They were advocating for different fuel and coal processing technologies, and it was just a really fascinating era of women working on this issue,” Mitchell said, “It’s also kind of neat to think about how there’s this really long legacy in the state of women showing leadership in this topic area that still exists today.”

Those modern efforts continue with such groups as Utah Moms For Clean Air, which was founded in 2007.

Cherise Udell, with the group, said they are assessing what they’ve done since then and planning on the next phase of their advocacy.

“Our major accomplishment was making it a kitchen-table conversation issue,” she said. “People were not talking about it. They might comment they can’t see the mountains, but there wasn’t really commentary on what it was doing to our health and our children.”

Udell said the group was able to negotiate with the Utah Department of Transportation to reconfigure the Mountain View Corridor Highway, which would have been adjacent to 21 schools in 2007.

The historical aspects of the digital exhibit, Udell said, proves the ethos of their group has been around for decades. “It’s often women that see moral and ethical issues, and put their foot down and demand that the men that have typically been in power do something about it,” she said.

In Utah, Udell said, mothers are often put on a pedestal — which can be useful, because they can use that high perch to champion issues, such as protecting their kids.

“We’re supposed to feed them healthy foods, clothe and bathe them, take care of them,” she said. “That also means taking care of the environment in which they’re living in. It came as an extension in many ways of the classic motherhood role.”

The work of that earlier generation of women advocates can be seen in the exhibit’s two interactive timelines — one that chronicles a general Utah history and another that focuses on women’s advocacy. Among the highlights:

  • October 1913 • A Tribune article chronicles women’s clubs mobilizing to fight “the smoke nuisance.”

  • 1914 • A Salt Lake Telegram article announces efforts of a pamphlet — stating that “the smoke evil” can be cured. A month later, a Tribune article shares that a women’s club is opposing two smoke ordinances.

  • 1933 • Women’s Environmentalism resurfaces in the New Deal era, with 100 “leading women” petitioning the University of Utah to create a research foundation to develop smokeless coal burning.

  • 1936-1948 • The Salt Lake Women’s Chamber of Commerce is formed, with Alice Merrill Horne and Cornelia S. Lund leading. The pair donated equipment to research projects at the U. and “petitioned the government to support measures designed to eliminate smoke from Salt Lake City.

  • 1939 • Women’s Clubs witness smokeless coal at The University of Utah.

  • 1948 • WCOC leaders welcome the first load of smokeless fuel to Salt Lake City.

Merrill Horne would start the Smokeless Fuel Federation of Utah in the 1930s. The exhibit also has separate pages dedicated to the Ladies Literary Club and the Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s advocacy efforts.

Wittmann said they collected the exhibit’s historic information from the Marriott library’s special collections area, as well as from Utah Digital Newspapers, and collections from Utah State History and Brigham Young University’s library.

Wittmann said, during her curation, she was most struck by these women of the chamber, because they never gave up. “They were advocating for smokeless fuel in Utah and said that it was the answer to all the problems,” she said.

Research found that the organizations themselves were quite large, Wittmann said, with membership topping 5,000. “They were very organized, intelligent women who never gave up on their cause for cleaner air in Utah,” she said.

Mitchell said a lot of the research and historical context they found points to the shift in energy needs. We’re now in the next phase of that ever-evolving transition, he said.

Today, as automobile exhaust has replaced coal smoke and soot as the top cause of smoggy skies, air quality issues continue to affect Utahns.

The American Lung Association’s 2023 State of the Air report found that Salt Lake City ranks 10th-worst across the nation for ozone pollution, and 19th for particle pollution. Earlier this month, Gov. Spencer Cox withdrew his nomination for Suzanne Harrison, a physician and a Democrat, for the Utah Air Quality Board, after Republicans in a Utah Senate committee blocked her approval.

Mitchell said the exhibit and his paper helped debunk a common narrative echoed around air quality issues.

“There’s a narrative that you either get to choose the economy or the environment: You can’t both protect the environment and have economic growth,” Mitchell said. “One of the things that was really surprising to me was seeing how that narrative is not true to our past, and has never really been true.”

In fact, Mitchell said, “we have been improving our air quality, and that is the reason why we’ve been able to develop our economy. … That’s the reason why we have a robust economy.”

Mitchell said both the exhibit and paper have shown that paying attention to history is key for the future of air quality in Utah.

“Having a better understanding of the history and that narrative gives us a better understanding about how those two things are actually really intertwined and interdependent on each other,” he said.