L.A.'s Smoggy Past, in Photos

L.A. Civic Center masked by smog on January 6, 1948. Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Char Miller recently wrote of Southern California's historical struggle with smog. On some days, the air was so polluted that "parents kept their kids out of school; athletes trained indoors; citrus growers and sugar-beet producers watched in dismay as their crops withered; the elderly and young crowded into doctors' offices and hospital ERs with throbbing heads and shortness of breath."

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Although a pristine view of the Hollywood sign may still elude Angelenos on most days, air pollution rarely cripples the city in present times as it did in the mid-twentieth century. Severe smog has largely abated, Miller argues, thanks to citizen activism, scientific advances, and landmark environmental legislation that allowed the EPA to regulate air pollutants.

That leaves many Southern Californians with only hazy memories of severe smog. The following images, from the photographic archives of the region's libraries, cultural institutions, and government agencies, show the extent of L.A.'s air pollution and provide a glimpse of how Southern California responded.

Coping with the Smog

When air pollution reached its worst levels in Los Angeles during the 1940s, the University of Southern California (USC) concerned itself with air pollution research. In this photo from the USC University Archives, two researchers test a protective helmet and suit designed to help Southern Californians cope with the smog: Courtesy of USC University Archives

Members of the Highland Park Optimists Club evidently spent at least part of their 1954 banquet in smog-gas masks, as shown in this photograph from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Library Special Collections: Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Boy scout Jeffrey La France wipes tears from the eyes of Nancy Rayder during a smog alert in Reseda on October 7, 1965: Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Mildred Fitzpatrick dries her eye as she views a smog-choked Los Angeles from City Hall tower in this photo from the USC Libraries' Regional History Collection: Courtesy of USC Libraries Special Collections - Los Angeles Examiner Collection

Bill Bounds heads into his underground smog alert chamber outside his Manhattan Beach home: Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Southern California Responds

With smog alerts disrupting daily life and raising health concerns, both the public and civic and scientific officials grew concerned. In 1951, Los Angeles even crowned Helene Stanley as Miss Smog Fighter to drum up support for anti-smog measures. In this photograph, Miss Smog Fighter shows dismay as L.A. City Council member Lee W. Warburton opens the lid on a jar of smog in this 1951 photograph: Courtesy of USC Libraries Special Collections - Los Angeles Examiner Collection

Local scientists investigated smog's causes. In the 1950s, automobile exhaust became a prime suspect. In this 1960 photograph, UCLA researchers demonstrate a new anti-smog device developed for automobiles: Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections - Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Presaging Smog's Arrival

Los Angeles suffered its first severe smog attack on July 26, 1943, but previous developments and practices suggested a general lack of concern about air quality.

The 1940 arrival of L.A.'s first diesel bus, announced in this story from the Los Angeles Railway's May 1940 issue of Two Bells, was billed as an advance. Diesel exhaust has since been conclusively identified as a source of toxic air pollution, but an article recently discovered in the Metro Library Transportation Library and Archive suggests that, even as late as 1954, diesel buses' role in air pollution was not understood. Courtesy of Metro Transportation Library and Archive

The cover of this 1925 Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce brochure, archived at the Autry National Center's Braun Research Library, proudly features a drawing of smokestacks bellowing pollutants into the atmosphere: Courtesy of Autry National Center - Braun Research Library

Even before they were crisscrossed by clogged highways, the air in Southern California's inland valleys was subject to pollution. Haze, possibly caused by the use of smudge pots to prevent frost on the Pomona Valley's citrus trees, partially obscures snow-capped Mount Baldy in this early-twentieth century postcard from the Claremont Colleges' Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections: Courtesy of Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections - City of Claremont History Collection

Smoggy Cityscapes

Horizontal clouds of pollution in the background of this 1951 photograph, from the California State University Dominguez Hills Archives, show the role of temperature inversion in creating smog: Courtesy of California State University Dominguez Hills - Del Amo Estate Company Collection

Extreme smog still can affect Los Angeles. In this photo, the skyline of modern downtown Los Angeles is obscured in a blanket of smog: Courtesy of Metro Transportation Library and Archive

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

The images in this post from the UCLA Library are used under a Creative Commons license. Images from the Metro Transportation Library and Archive are used under a separate Creative Commons license.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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Having grown up in LA, these photos are not nostalgic, just a reminder of the awful days of choking on the air. I just sent the link to this article to the NRDC suggesting they take a look at this as they try to ensure the Senate does not weaken and defund the EPA.
We have to remember the success stories and the air quality improvement in Los Angeles is one of them even tho so much more needs to be done.

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One man's nostalgia is another (woman's?) environmental nightmare?

Growing up on the East Coast, the image of Los Angeles as choking on its own fumes was firmly implanted in my mind. I was actually surprised by how "clean" the air was when I moved here in 2005.

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A protective helmet? He looked like he was going to space!

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I moved to Pasadena in October, 1966, and didn't know there were mountains until December. It was as if they grew overnight.