Ten whimsical cartoons against air pollution, 1955-1958
In 1955, after a massive protest by local activists, the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District launched a public relations campaign to publicize its battle against smog. In addition to radio programs, TV shows and newspaper interviews, the APCD mailed thousands of newsletters illustrated with striking photographs and whimsical cartoons.
“Burning Ban Upheld.” While some of the cartoons were just playful decorations, most were illustrations that illuminated a short paragraph of news. Then as now, polluters fought regulations in court and by appealing to elected officials. The newsletter called out groups of polluters who resisted, and lauded those who complied. (LA APCD Report May 1956, p. 2)
“Round the Clock Patrol” and “Sirens for Patrols.” Many of the cartoons featured cops, in response to public concern about lax or unfair enforcement of air pollution regulations. Specially trained enforcement officers drove around the city looking for smoke, equipped with two way radios so that polluters couldn’t eliminate the cause of a complaint before the inspector arrived on the scene. By the summer of 1956, they were allowed to use lights and sirens and chase smoking vehicles down the highway. (September 1955, August 1956)
“Edison Installs Controls” and “New Research Tools.” Clever cartoons could depict abstract events in ways that were readily understood even by casual readers. (July-August 1958)
“Forecast Terms Changed.” The APCD communicated daily smog forecasts through radio, TV, and newspapers. The first attempt drew on the familiar stoplight metaphor, but apparently some people thought this meant that smog would make LA’s air literally green, yellow or red. (June 1956)
“Broad Research Program.” The APCD conducted research in addition to enforcing existing laws. It had its own labs, as well as contracting with academic researchers and private R & D firms. The cartoons often used chemical glassware as an icon for science. (September 1955)
“Incinerator Change Problem.” Backyard trash incinerators were one of the air pollution sources targeted by the APCD. This newsletter item reminded LA apartment building owners of an upcoming deadline to replace single-chamber incinerators with multi-chamber units that burned refuse more completely. Individual householders had to stop using private incinerators completely by 1958. (March 1956)
“Average Motorist Sought.” The APCD worked with the Automobile Manufacturers Association to measure how much time typical LA drivers spent accelerating, cruising, and idling as they tooled around town. Twenty-five APCD drivers spent three weeks driving specially instrumented cars in the spring of 1956. (June 1956)
- Christopher Sellers, “Anxious about the Air,” chapter 7 in Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012): pp. 207-240.
- “Blight on the Land of Sunshine,” Life Magazine (November 1, 1954): pp. 17-18
Photographs by Roger Turner of issues of the Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District Report, 1955-1958, held in the South Coast Air Quality Management District Records, Collection 1675, boxes 34 and 48, UCLA Archives and Special Collections.