On the worst days, ladies had taken to carrying cloths to mop their tears, and drivers had to pull over because their eyes watered too badly to see. Rubber tires cracked, nylon stockings decayed and farmers reported spots on the leaves of their prized citrus, spinach and beets.
They didn't much care for what the chemist, Arie Haagen-Smit, had discovered: The principal culprit wasn't industry, but cars.
Haagen-Smit distilled down hundreds of cubic feet of air and identified the eye-smarting culprits. Then, following a hunch, he took components of car exhaust — nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbons — and exposed them to light. The brew was uncannily similar to the junk in the air — and seemingly just as noxious.
Leaves of plants discolored when subjected to it. Officials found that it stung their eyes, and one enthusiastic air pollution officer inhaled so much "Haagen-smog" that he got bronchitis.
It was a eureka moment, right up there with the invention of the Richter scale.
Smog. It's as much a part of L.A. as celebrities, water-guzzling lawns and urban sprawl. Its light-reflecting particles give us those nice, blazing sunsets — the pretty "auburn sky" of Don Henley's song "Sunset Grill" — and impart a glow to the city that caused one New Yorker essayist to tear up from emotion, not pollution, at its memory. Even a cosmetics line and a rock band have taken their names from it.
Tourists as far back as the 1940s bought canisters of Genuine Los Angeles Smog (adorned with depictions of cars and a haze-shrouded City Hall) to mail to their nearest and dearest. Children of the '70s played an earnest Smog board game in which they got to be little red-tape bureaucrats, moving tokens and plastic smoke plumes while trying to clean a city's air.
Some of this was gallows humor, of course. Smog is nothing to take lightly — a fact that gets clearer each year as the ill effects of air pollution are better understood. Smog reduces lung capacity, and exacerbates asthma in children. Some elements of smog are carcinogenic, and no one knows how many people might die before their time from breathing it.
Its tendrils reach far beyond the city, as far east as Joshua Tree National Park, depositing nitrogen in the soil that encourages the growth of foreign weeds at the expense of native species.
Technically speaking, though, it's really not smog that we're talking about, points out Scott Dewey, a scholar and historian of foul air.
"It's a misnomer," Dewey says. The word "smog," coined in 1905, is a melding of the words "smoke" and "fog," and it refers more properly to the industrial emissions that killed 20 people (as well as sundry cats, dogs and canaries) in Donora, Pa., in 1948; and to the smoky, sulfurous coal-burning fog that killed an estimated 4,000 Londoners in 1952.
We never got much of that kind of smog, Dewey explains, because we didn't burn much dirty coal, relying instead on cleaner oil and gas as the population burgeoned. Nonetheless, the region has always been prone to dirty air, and with it has come a certain bewilderment.
In one episode during World War II, the Japanese were suspected of staging a chemical attack. During another, a Los Angeles official suggested that the stinging eyes experienced by Altadena protesters were "psychological." The official was invited by the Altadena Property Owners League to visit the city and "get lungs full of psychology."
Officials rode blimps over the city to see whether they could spot the source of the pollution, and I.A. Deutsch, air pollution control director with the county Health Department, repeatedly urged residents experiencing stinging eyes from "aerial sewage" to send postcards detailing their experiences to City Hall.
We now know that L.A.'s famous inversion layer is a root cause of the smog problem. Warm air routinely settles above the cooler air blowing in from the ocean — and thus the cooler air cannot rise to dissipate its contents. Any emissions from chimney and tailpipe are trapped within the lowest few thousand feet.
Pollution regulators tried a host of other measures before they went after the auto: controlling dust and fumes at smelting plants, banning backyard trash-burning, slashing smoke from factories and sulfur dioxide emissions from refineries.
The public, too, weighed in with suggestions: As far back as 1960, for example, crusty Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky made the case for carpooling. "It is obviously preposterous to allow a single individual to pollute the atmosphere at his pleasure," he wrote, adding that eradicating smog would show the Communists that America meant business.