Before Silent Spring

Exploring the Lost History of Environmental Conflict Before Silent Spring

Bill Kovarik, Ph.D.

Presentation to the Communication Studies Seminar Series at Virginia Tech
September 25, 1998

The democratic tradition of debate over public health and natural resources can be traced back to the Colonial era, and examples are found throughout U.S. history. The news media played an important part in many of these debates, and newspaper and magazine archives are excellent but relatively untapped sources for uncovering environmental history. This discussion also briefly summarizes one controversy involving the introduction of leaded gasoline in the 1920s.

Environmental concerns have surfaced repeatedly in the American news media since the Colonial era. This would only seem logical — after all, the problems would have certainly been apparent — but it is a relatively new perspective for historians.

In our recent book, Mass Media and Environmental Conflict,[1] Minnesota media historian Mark Neuzil and I pointed this out and took issue with the “traditional error” that  environmental controversy  emerged recently in an “historical void.”[2]  We said that historians were wrong to claim that the development of science and technology was “largely unquestioned” until the late 20th century,[3] and that environmental controversy in American began with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring,[4] or the first 1970 celebration of Earth Day.[5]

This perspective simply reflects a lack of research and to some extent it is fading scholarship adds to the story of environmental history.  In the past two or three decades we’ve seen the emergence of the Journal of Environmental History and the British Journal, Environment and History. There have also been a number of tremendously insightful books by authors such as Clarence Glacken,[6] Roderick Nash,[7] J.D. Hughes,[8]  Melvin Melosi,[9]  Carolyn Merchant [10] and Donald Worster,[11]  to name a few. There are also web sites that provide environmental history timelines and links to environmental history organizations.[12]

To consider the lost history of environmental conflict in this social and political context, this invited presentation will take a brief look in the academic direction of historiography, that is, the overview of how we approach history.[13] Next, we’ll look at some trends in environmental news coverage, especially from the Progressive era.[14] And finally, the presentation examines some specific controversies for insight into how “Green Crusaders” and the news media have historically worked together to protect the public interest.[15]

Environmental History and Media History

“History,” said Thomas Jefferson, “only informs us what bad government is.” This is a fair starting point for our discussion because in his day, Jefferson was right. History was focused on politics. It was the central issue of the day.

Mainstream history today might be said to involve three major fields:  political history,  economic history and cultural history.  Some historians have called these “stages” of history,[16] but of course they aren’t lockstep, linear progressions. As Mark Neuzil said, it is probably better to think of history as a recipe that gets more and more complex as more cooks use it and make their own innovations. More formally, we might call them historical paradigms.

Political history began sometime around the French and American revolutions and continued through the mid-19th century. Economic history emerged around the mid- to late-19th centuries with Matthew Carey,  Karl Marx, Max Weber and others. In the 20th century of course we have John Kenneth Galbraith many others. Cultural history rose in the mid-20th century, particularly in the 1960s, partly as a reaction to the “Whig” political histories of great men and great institutions. Examples of cultural would be Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States[17] and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters.[18]

The idea some environmental historians are working with, and one that I would tend to agree with, is that environmental history represents a fourth paradigm or “stage” of history. We could define it as the story of human interactions with the natural world, of how humans have an impact on nature, and how nature shapes human behavior.

This is obviously a recently emerging theme.  The Virginia Tech library lists about 1,000 titled under economic history but only about 20 under environmental history. At Radford University, we have about 300 titles in economic history and four in environmental history. Even so, using environment as the main conceptual framework for history, we come up with a very different sort of picture than if we use, say, politics, economics or culture.

Duke University historian John Richards discusses the power of environmental history and notes that there are three basic approaches.[19] These are:

• Land and marine use — including the histories of forests and grasslands, of animals and mass extinction’s, and of the settlement of the frontiers. This is where most environmental historians, including Richards, have focused their work.

• Industrial metabolism — that is, histories of energy, of the formation of cities, of waste water control, and so on.

•  Public Health — This would include histories of disease prevention, social control and urban reform efforts, among others.

It is in these latter two categories that I would suggest that media history   has  a great deal to contribute to environmental history, and visa versa.

In the first place, the construction of communication systems — newspapers, telegraph systems, satellites for television — could be seen as part of the industrial metabolism  mechanism for feedback and adaptation.

Secondly, one challenge in media history, as Neuzil has noted, is to write historical narratives in which nature is an actor. For instance, the Los Angeles Mirror newspaper, a 19th century precursor of the Los Angeles Times, had a press that used a nearby stream for  power. Unfortunately, the stream was a major fish spawning grounds. Fish kept swimming into the works, and fish parts kept getting into the presses and the newspaper. By the way, this was before subscribers had a chance to wrap the paper around their own fish.

Most significantly, the public record found in newspapers and magazines of the past few centuries is a vitally important source of information. Many people are surprised, for instance, to learn that one of America’s first environmental controversies happened in Philadelphia in 1739. It seems that the slaughterhouses and tanneries were in the habit of dumping their refuse directly into Dock Creek, which was only a few blocks away from Ben Franklin’s print shop on Market Street downtown. The creek was choked with offal, hides, hair and horns. In the summer, the smell was overpowering.

A group of merchants (apparently led by Ben Franklin) petitioned the state assembly, asking that these businesses be forced to locate out of town, as was the custom  in Europe. In response, the slaughterhouse owners organized a parade of slogan-chanting, sign-carrying men decrying the “daring attempt” (attack) on their liberties. They were supported by Andrew Bradford’s American Weekly Mercury.  Franklin replied in the Pennsylvania Gazette that the merchants were concerned with “public rights.”  Rather than a daring attack,  he saw it as “only a modest Attempt to deliver a great Number of Tradesmen from being poisoned by a few, and restore to them the Liberty of Breathing freely in their own Houses.”[20] Franklin also argued that the polluted waters of Dock Creek were a breeding ground for diseases such as yellow fever, even though it was far from clear at the time how polluted water could cause disease.  In the end, the assembly accepted the petition, giving the merchants a symbolic victory, but the tanneries stayed and Dock Creek was filled in.

We can learn a lot from this prototyical American environmental conflict. A media historian would examine the article in the Pennsylvania Gazette and see a concern with a local issue and an apparent assumption that everyone in town knew what was happening. Franklin used the newspaper to respond to industry arguments that are no longer known. He didn’t try to  explain the problem, its background or the proposed remedies. He just argued with Bradford. It’s not until about a century later we begin to see articles about regional environmental controversies which try to take an overview.  Finally, in the 20th century, we begin to see national articles. This progression reflects the growing role of the press on the national scene as well as in local and regional issues.

Another point is that the article in the Pennsylvania Gazette is like a fossil; it’s the only evidence of this controversy, other than the petition itself, which was located by historian A.M. McMahon.[21]

It’s also interesting that Franklin, like many (but not all) journalists before and after him, allied himself with “public rights” rather than the private rights of tannery and slaughterhouse owners, who had their own spokesman in Bradford. When media compete, public debate deepens. That does not tend to happen when there is no competition.

Ben Franklin’s Dock Creek controversy is only one of dozens or even hundreds of unknown environmental controversies that can be reconstructed by using newspaper archives in combination with standard historical archives. It’s easy to find areas that no one has ever looked into. Buffalo extinctions were called “The Crime of the Century”[22] in a Scientific American article in the late 19th century. As late as 1905, the New York Times ran an article about the joys of a buffalo hunt. Only two years later, we find six items on the extinction of buffalo and attempts to preserve remaining herds. And in 1908, then-President Theodore refused to hunt buffalo on a trip out west because they were becoming extinct.[23] The apparent shift in public opinion is worth looking into.

Another controversy involved the flap over the extinction of birds for feathers to adorn women’s hats around 1912. One article was entitled “Millinery Murder.”[24] The coverage peaked with legislation that made importing hat feathers illegal.

Trends in Media Coverage

Click thru for the full set of slides


By looking through the New York Times index and the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, we can take a quantitative approach and sketch an overview of the cycles of public health and environmental controversy in the Progressive era. Looking at the New York Times index for the years 1899 to 1926, we can see the rise of water and air pollution coverage as well as coverage of conservation issues such as bird protection  and forestry.  As a point of comparison, we could also see the same trends in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature.

In Chart I, we see New York Times coverage of  air pollution or the “smoke nuisance” controversy — and it clearly has the bipolar distribution you would expect when the nation turned its attention to World War I.

Chart II shows the New York Times coverage of water pollution issues. A dramatic increase in concern about water power began around World War I, while the category of “water pollution” has that same bipolar distribution as air pollution. “Beach pollution” was also a serious concern around this time, as was “harbor pollution.” The articles correspond with the emergence of the National Coast Anti-Pollution League and attempts to legislate an end to oil dumping at sea — a controversy that continued through the 1920s.

The same bipolar trends hold true in Chart III, where we see New York Times coverage of forestry and bird preservation rising with the Progressive movement and falling off as war approaches. And again, we see a second wave of Progressive concerns in the 1920s.  Chart IV and Chart  V show a very similar trend in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature.

The striking thing about the charts is their significantly bipolar distribution. Apparently, a strong revival of environmental concerns took place in the late 1920s. And yet, many  histories of the Progressive era, for example those by Samuel Hayes and Carolyn Merchant,  stop around World War I.[25]  One possible explanation for this revival is that environmental concerns had become less of a matter of public controversy and more deeply institutionalized by government. If that were true, however, why would we also find concern about the lack of public support. In  1925, well into the second wave of Progressive news coverage? For example,  a New York Times editorial said:

“The chief need… is to arouse public opinion. It is necessary to make it plain to everyone that extensive pollution of the rivers is unsanitary as well as destructive of animal and plant life.”[26]

Again we see the news media allied with “public rights.” So, too, were many government  officials.  Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, said to an Isaac Walton League official right after an anti pollution bill was tabled in 1924:

“Official Washington has no knowledge that the American people give a damn about pollution, and until they do care and let their State governments and Federal government know that they do care, there will be no great advance as to pollution.”[27]

Most of the controversies in this trend analysis had several elements in common. First, there were usually competing interests with various claims to public rights that could be acted on only by some governmental agency. Often environmental advocates (Green Crusaders) were part of an elite group that promoted municipal reform, but sometimes they were voices in the wilderness. Secondly, there were often great uncertainties about the scientific facts underlying the controversy. It is amazing today to see, for example, articles from 1908 in which ice companies claim that there was no harm in cutting river ice below sewage outfalls, but scientific certainty has always been relative.  And third, there was usually some dramatic trend or event that would fix the controversy in the public mind.

Green Crusaders and the press in the leaded gasoline conflict

One of the most heated controversies of the Progressive Era involved the introduction of leaded gasoline in the 1924 – 1926 time period.  The dramatic chain of events that led to the controversy is interesting, but even more intriguing is the failure of the news media to seek answers to basic questions about scientific issues.

The events could be summarized as follows:  General Motors and Standard Oil Company formed a partnership in 1924 to promote a new and untested high octane gasoline containing small amounts of an extraordinarily hazardous poison called tetra-ethyl lead. The partnership was called the Ethyl Corp. Charles Kettering, president of Ethyl and vice president for research at G.M., was in such a hurry to produce tetra-ethyl lead that he ignored the warnings of scientists and chemical engineers and approved a dangerous design for a refinery. Within a month after starting operations, all 50 of the men at the refinery began to show signs of severe lead poisoning. At least five died in straightjackets, violently insane, and a dozen more deaths in other Ethyl operations became known after the refinery incident in late October, 1924.  Ethyl temporarily pulled the product off the market and the U.S. Surgeon General held a conference on the use of Ethyl leaded gasoline in 1925.

At the conference, Kettering and other industry scientists defended their new product by insisting that it was a great advance for science and absolutely necessary for civilization. Nothing else would work, and industry studies showed there was no cause for public alarm. Public health advocates, especially Alice Hamilton, a crusading Harvard M.D., tried to point out the dangers of sublte lead poisoning, and even insisted that alternatives existed.

The media were in effect presented with a false dichotomy. A World headline of May 5, 1925 summarized the issue neatly: “Will Ethyl Gasoline Poison Us All? Scientists Disagree.” Since ordinary people wouldn’t be exposed to the same heavy doses as the refinery workers, the question had to do with long term exposure to small amounts of lead. The choice as presented was whether to support science and technology and take a small risk, or to err on the side of caution when it came to releasing poisons into the environment. There is certainly a familar modern ring to this dilemma.

But as Kettering, Hamilton and others knew, the issue was much more complex. The underlying problem involved raising the anti-knock value of gasoline in order to build more powerful engines. There were many ways of going about this. G.M. had patented half a dozen in the early 1920s which were reported at the time in Chemical Abstracts.  In fact, one reason Kettering was in such a hurry to build the dangerous tetra-ethyl lead refinery is that he was were worried about competition, for example, from the new Houdry reforming process being used by Arco and Sunoco. That process raised octane by 25 points; leaded gasoline only raised octane by about 10 points.

So it wasn’t at all true that no alternatives existed, and it wasn’t true that science and progress depended on this new invention.  In fact, leaded gasoline was a third rate technical choice, albeit a profitable one.

Where industry served its own interests, the news media was inept at protecting the public interest. The media accepted the false dichotomy and never got beyond the layers of technological smokescreens. Only at the New York World did editors quote Hamilton and ask the most basic question: what are the alternatives?  And even the World never attempted to answer it.

The lack of scientific certainty was a key factor in media coverage. Two different approaches emerged: on the one hand, the conservative New York Times printed both industry and public health sides of the conflict, but was concerned with supporting “science”as an abstract concept. On the other hand, the liberal New York World printed a great deal more of what the public health scientists had to say. This was science, too, but not the ideal of technological science Kettering represented. The difference in source reliance between the two papers is clear in Ethyl Chart I.

It’s interesting that the editors of the two papers had two different approaches to understanding science:  Carr Van Anda of the Times was known as a scientist’s journalist, a man who could unravel hieroglyphics and catch mistakes in transcriptions of Einstein’s equations. Van Anda took the approach that Thomas Dewey would call “knowledge of” science. He had a detailed understanding of  scientific fact, and that in itself seemed sufficient.

Walter Lippmann, on the other hand, took the approach that could be described as “knowledge about” science. He did not have, as he said in a letter to Alice Hamilton, the resources to fully understand the scientific controversy. What he did have, however, was a concern for the impacts of science on people, and the same desire to protect “public rights” that Benjamin Franklin had in the Dock Creek controversy.

Almost 75 years after this incident, with leaded gasoline still being sold worldwide, the history of this incident is still unknown. It’s like Santayana said: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  When the leaded gasoline debate broke out again in the 1970s, and when it surfaced in Europe and the developing nations recently, nobody remembered the concerns of public health scientists back in the 1920s.

Books and articles about Ethyl and Kettering reduce the controversy to a media event, and many historians have relied on secondary or tertiary archival sources that were heavily edited by General Motors and Ethyl Corp.[28]   In fact, as recently as 1996, an article on Kettering in Invention & Technology said that “health agencies assured the public that leaded gasoline posed no danger.”[29] This is not at all accurate, which is obvious from the media record of the time and from the U.S. Public Health Service report.[30]


The histories of the Ethyl controversy written to date have been written from the perspective of economic history, and they are deeply flawed in the same sense that a scientific theory is flawed when anomalies surface at the approach of a shift in paradigms.

One of the problems we face in history is the impression that political and  technological paths we choose are inevitable. What we need is more of the kind of history that explores the roads not taken and asks: “Why?”   We need more history that is focused around what is arguably the most important question of our generation, which is long term environmental survival.

It is sad that the news media of the 1920s proved so ill-equipped to deal with scientific controversy, but the impression you might get reading lengthy and detailed columns of text is that they did a better job than would the news media of today, given the same situation. Today, environmental reporting involves tiny sound bites featuring conflicting experts. This stems in part from structural problems in the modern media, but there are also problems of support and training worth noting here.  Most large communications schools don’t emphasize science and the environment, and most universities with a committment to science won’t make a committment communication.

There is also the problem of advocacy. Crusading journalism is seen as old fashioned today. However, in some historical areas, we see it as justified. We look back with admiration on journalists who fought racism, like Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells or John Howard Griffin.[31] Historical hindsight is easy in this area.

Public dialogue over the environment would be a little easier today if we had a sense of history about it; if we understood the democratic traditions of debate about public health and natural resource issues; if we understood the Green Crusaders and the journalists who made sure they had a public voice. What is at stake when we explore the lost history of environmental conflict is the way we see ourselves and our futures.

[1] Mark Neuzil and Bill Kovarik, Mass Media and Environmental Conflict, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.

[2] Joseph A. Pratt, “Letting the Grandchildren Do It: Environmental Planning During the Ascent of Oil as the Major Energy Source,” The Public Historian  2, No. 4  (Fall, 1980), p. 28.

[3] Dorothy Nelkin,  Controversy: Politics of Technical Decisions (London: Sage Publications, 1979), p. 9.

[4] Nelson Smith and Leonard J. Theberge, Energy Coverage Media Panic (New York: Longman, 1983), p. 142. Also, see ; Edith Efron,  The Apocalyptics  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 30; Rothman, S., and Lichter, R., “The Media, Elite Conflict and Risk Perception in Nuclear Energy Policy,” American Political Science Association (Washington, DC, Aug. 1986), p. 1. Also, see: Sale, K. 1993. The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement, 1962-1992. New York: Hill & Wang.

[5] Gaylord Nelson, “History of Earth Day,”  Oct. 6, 1990 speech,

[6] Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian shore; nature and culture in Western thought from ancient times to the end of the eighteenth century (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967.

[7] Roderick Nash,  Wilderness and the American Mind. 3rd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. Also, The American Conservation Movement. St. Charles, Mo.: Forum  Press, 1974.

[8] J.D. Hughes, Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems (of) Ancient Greeks and Romans, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994.  Also, Ecology in Ancient Civilizations, Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1975.

[9] Melosi, M. V. Garbage in American Cities: Refuse, Reform, and  Environment, 1880-1980, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1981.  Also, “Urban Pollution: Historical Perspective Needed,”  Environmental  Review III: 37-45, 1979. Also, Pollution and Reform in American Cities,  1870-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

[10] Carolyn Merchant, “Earthcare: Women and the Environmental Movement,” Environment 23:5 (June): 6-15, 38-40, 1981. Also, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific  Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

[11] Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. .Also, “Transformation of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” The Journal of American History (March):  1087-1108, 1990. Also, Nature’s Economy: The Roots of Ecology, San Francisco: Sierra  Club Books, 1977.  Also, as ed. The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History,  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[12] For example:

[13] I’m indebted to Mark  Neuzil for his insights in this area. For more information, see his paper:  “Including the Natural World in the History of the Mass Media: An Overview,”  paper to the AEJMC Convention, Baltimore Aug. 5, 1998.

[14] William Kovarik, Ph.D., “The confluence of newspapers and the environment in the early 20th century,” paper to the AEJMC Convention, Baltimore Aug. 5, 1998.

[15] William Kovarik, Ph.D., “Charles F. Kettering and the Development of Tetraethyl Lead in the Context of Alternative Technologies,”. Proceedings of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Paper 943924, Baltimore, Maryland, 1994.  Also, “Agenda Setting in the 1924-1926 Public Health Controversy over Ethyl (Leaded) Gasoline,” Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Reno, Nevada, 1994.  Also, The Ethyl Controversy: How the News Media and Health Advocates Set the Agenda for a 1920s Environmental Debate over Leaded Gasoline and the Alternatives,  unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of  Maryland, 1993.

[16] James O’Connor, “What is Environmental History? Why Environmental History?” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (June 1997): 3-29.

[17] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (NY: Harper & Row, 1980).

[18] Taylor Branch, Parting the waters : America in the King years, 1954-63 (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1988).

[19] John F. Richards, World Deforestation in the Twentieth Century (Durham, N.C.:Duke University Press,   1988).

[20]  Pennsylvania Gazette, August 23, 1739.

[21] McMahon, A. M. 1992. “’Small Matters': Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia and the ‘Progress of Cities,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and  Biography 66:2. (April): 157-82.

[22] C.F. Holder, “Crime of a Century,” Scientific American, December 9, 1899, p. 378-9.

[23] “Roosevelt Refuses to Hunt,” New York Times, Sept. 29, 1908, p. 1:2.

[24] “Millinery Murder,” Living Age, June 27, 1906.

[25] Samuel Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920 (NY Athenaeum 1959).   Also Carolyn Merchant, “The Women of the Progressive Conservation Crusade: 1900-1915,” in  Environmental History, ed., Kendall E. Bailes (New York: University Press, 1985).

[26] “The Pollution of Rivers,” New York Times editorial, Nov. 7, 1925, p. 14:3.

[27] Herbert Hoover, speaking to Will Dilg, President of the Isaac Walton League, after the tabling of an anti-pollution bill March 3, 1924.  Douglas C. Drake, “Herbert Hoover, Ecologist: The Politics of Oil Pollution Control, 1921 – 1926,” Mid America, July 1973, vol. 55, p. 207-228.

[28] David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, “A Gift of God?” in Dying For Work: Workers Safety and Health in 20th Century America, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989). Also,  Stuart Leslie, Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). An especially biased account of this history is by Joseph C. Robert, Ethyl: A History of the Corporation and the People Who Made It (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1983).

[29] Oliver F. Allen, “Kettering,” Invention & Technology, Fall, 1996.

[30] What they said was this:  “It remains possible that if the use of leaded gasolines becomes widespread, conditions may arise very different from those studied by us which would render its use more of a hazard than would appear to be the case from this investigation. Longer exposure may show that even such slight storage of lead as was observed in these studies may lead eventually in susceptible individuals to recognizable lead poisoning or chronic degenerative disease of obvious character… The committee feels this investigation must not be allowed to lapse.” From:  “The Use of Tetraethyl Lead Gasoline in its Relation to Public Health,” Public Health Bulletin No. 163, U.S. Public Health Service, Treasury Dept. (Washington: GPO, 1926). In fact, the investigation did lapse.

[31] John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961). Lovejoy was a martyr to the cause of abolition in 1837. Wells (also known as Ida B. Wells Barnett) exposed lynch mob justice in Memphis, Tenn. in the 1890s and had to move to New York when her life was threatened.