Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

It was ninety-five years ago – Tuesday, October 17, 1911, to be precise – that one Ada Atkins of McKeesport, Allegheny County, wrote to a Miss May Hickey of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, a village of slightly more than three hundred residents. (The Census of 1910 counted nearly forty-three thousand residents in heavily industrialized McKeesport, located south of Pittsburgh.)

Don’t like this country very well,” Atkins scrawled on a postcard bearing an image of McKeesport’s Masonic Temple, located at Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street, adding “to[o) dirty and smoakey hardly know what sunshine is any more. Was over to Pittsburgh last week [and] it is as bad…

Ada Atkins’s observation was nothing new. Generations of Pitts­burgh residents had come to accept the suffocating smog and gritty grime as part of daily life in what became known as “The Smoky City.” So thick was the air with soot spewing forth from smokestacks of hundreds of factories, shops, iron and steel mills, railroad yards, and thousands of residential coal-burning furnaces that visitors easily found fodder to criticize the deplorable conditions. As early as 1862, English traveler Anthony Trollope called Pittsburgh “the blackest place which I ever saw.” Several years later, writer James Par­ton described it as “Hell with the lid taken off,” a phrase often repeated by proud Pittsburghers. Despite street lamps burning throughout the day and white shirts turning black in a matter of minutes, many residents accepted – if not embraced – the smog, equating it with productivity and prosperity.

Ironically, just a year before Atkins wrote to Hickey, the Pittsburgh Civic Improvement Commission urged the formation of a bureau of smoke abatement control that would counsel and cooperate with factories to improve “the Pittsburgh atmosphere without hampering its industrial success.” Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, city government programs, politicians, civic groups, community activists, industrialists, financiers and, notably, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (responsible for Pittsburgh’s famous post-World War II Renaissance), relentlessly attacked the problem, significantly reducing air pollution and prompting Rand McNally and Company to name Pittsburgh “America’s Most Livable City” in 1985.