Smog in a Can - Genuine Los Angeles Smog


The days of smog alerts are now few and far between, but for 25 years starting in 1945 Los Angeles was on constant alert for the miasmatic substance in the air. According to Chip Jacobs, author of "Smogtown," Angelenos "were at war in the 1940s, politicians tried to elicit a patriotic response to smog." If you saw your neighbor using his incinerator, report him; if your local factory was bellowing smoke, call us.

A Los Angeles commuter wears an only slightly satiric gas mask on October 2, 1966.
A Los Angeles commuter wears an only slightly satiric gas mask on October 2, 1966.

In 1955 fifteen smog alerts were recorded, including one on September 13th - one of the smoggiest days on record. Two articles previously written here on KCET.org - an archival photo essay by Nathan Masters and an article on the Clean Air Act by Jeremy Rosenberg - include photos portraying science-fiction-like landscapes of Angelenos dealing with the smog invasion, wearing gas masks and attaching smog sensors to their automobiles.

In 1957 the "Smog in a Can" was introduced by Hollywood actor Carleton Young, best known for his line from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Establishing the Los Angeles Smog Corporation, Young and associate Hal Tamblin set about canning smog in colorfully designed labels for mass distribution. According to the label:


Seen as a novelty today, it could just as easily have been a piece of performance art by Young, highlighting the futility of easing smog in Los Angeles. This was a jab at politicians for a lack of action, or according to Jacobs, "a white flag." In 1970, the federal Clean Air Act set in motion an effort to clean up the skies in California.

"In this zany city anything can happen. When it does, somebody usually makes money on it. There are days, for instance, when you can see men waving empty tin cans in the air. They do this when it's smoggy. After a few swipes at the murky atmosphere, they clap lids on the cans. Once sealed and label, the cans are packed for shipment by the Los Angeles Smog Corp." Toledo Blade, April 18, 1958.