35 vintage photos reveal what Los Angeles looked like before the US regulated pollution

A motorcyclist in Los Angeles prepares to turn while driving along a street that’s engulfed in a thick haze of fog and smog in 1958. Bettmann / Getty

  • Los Angeles has had air pollution problems since before smog was a term.
  • In 1943, smog covered the city so thickly that residents thought they were under a chemical attack.

The city of stars could be called the city of smog.

Los Angeles has had years of thick air pollution due to a ballooning population, unregulated industry, a booming car industry, and its natural geography.

In 1943, during World War II, pollution blanketed the city so intensely residents thought Japan had launched a chemical attack. Over the next three decades, improvements came, but they were slow.

The Washington Post described it in 1953 as “eye-burning, lung-stinging, headache-inducing smog.”

The biggest victory against smog came in 1970. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which led to air pollution regulations, and allowed California to make even stricter provisions within its state.

In the early 1970s, the EPA launched the “The Documerica Project,” which leveraged 100 freelance photographers to document what the US looked like. By 1974, they had taken 81,000 photos. The National Archives digitized nearly 16,000 and made them available online, and we’ve selected 35 in the Los Angeles area.

Here’s what LA looked like before the EPA.

Los Angeles has a history of smog. The problem is exacerbated by its natural geography — the sprawling city is shaped like a bowl, which traps fumes blown by Southern California’s sea breeze, and causes them to linger over the city.

Third of a series of three pictures showing stages of smog formation in Los Angeles, California, in the 1940s. PhotoQuest/Getty

In July 1943, a particularly bad bout of smog caused red eyes and running noses. People thought the city was under a chemical attack from the Japanese. The Los Angeles Times called it a “black cloud of doom.”

City Hall through smog in 1949. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Wired

During the 1940s people began to notice the smog, but many thought it was clouds. They weren’t. According to the Los Angeles Times, “It was just the poor quality of the air that was a hazy, acrid, smelly, presence burning.”

Smog pictures, November 28, 1950. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

It wasn’t called smog then. The Los Angeles Times once called it “daylight dims out.” But the term “smog” eventually entered the popular vernacular — mixing the words smoke and fog.

Looking down at a smoggy Los Angeles in 1949. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

At times, the city disappeared entirely.

Smog, September 23, 1949. A man looks south east from City Hall in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

People felt its effects. Here, women dab their eyes and noses as the world outside appears impenetrable.

Looking west from City Hall in December 1949. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

In 1949, smoke from a trash dump covered the city. Later, fearing the effects of smog on the city’s inhabitants, Gov. Goodwin Knight restricted the open burning of garbage. It was made illegal in 1958.

Smog settles over LA from trash dump. Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Source: Los Angeles Times

On bad days, cars would appear from out of the smog. Visibility was so bad that people had car accidents.

Smog picture, 15 December 1952. Mission Hosiery Mills, 3764 South Broadway Place, Los Angeles. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

Like this one in 1948.

Wrecks caused by smog obscuring road, 16 December 1948. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

The city had more than one million cars by 1940.

Smog, 2 December 1949. Looking west from City Hall. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

But it wasn’t until the early 1950s that car exhaust was established as one of the primary causes of smog.

Los Angeles smog, 24 December 1948. Smog blanket over Los Angeles in the vicinity of General Hospital;Showing top of smog blanket laying over city. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

Cars contribute to ozone, which was the main cause of the smog. The ozone layer up in the atmosphere protects life on Earth from harmful UV rays. But when it’s near the ground, ozone is a harmful gas that can trigger health issues like asthma.

This is a view of Los Angeles on one of its often smoggy days, Dec. 11, 1958. AP

Sources: Wired, Los Angeles Times

Smog continued to blanket the city in the 1950s. This is the view from the Los Angeles City Hall in 1954, after eight days of heavy smog.

This is the view from the Los Angeles City Hall, Oct. 14, 1954, during the eighth day of an eye-piercing, lung-congesting smog that has brought angry protests from citizens demanding that somebody do something about it. Ira W. Guldner / AP

Peering in the city, the Washington Post wrote, was “like peering into the smoke-filled backrooms of the era’s bars.”

Buildings in Los Angeles Civic Center are barely visible in picture looking east at 1st and Olive Streets. at 11 am when smog was at its peak. Los Angeles Times/Getty

Lee Begovich, who moved to the city in 1953, told the Washington Post she was stunned when the wind blew the smog away one day and she finally, for the first time, saw the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast.

Smog along South Broadway between 15th & 16th Streets in Los Angeles, California, on December 9, 1948. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis / Getty

In 1954, Getty wrote that there were so many red eyes, one person said “you couldn’t tell the people with hangovers from those who went to bed the night before.”

A pedestrian wipes his eyes as he crosses a downtown, Los Angeles street, Oct. 15, 1954, the ninth successive day on which an eye-stinging smog blanket has hung over southern California. Ira Guldner / AP

People wore masks to counter what the Washington Post described as “eye-burning, lung-stinging, headache-inducing smog.”

Los Angeles Smog in 1954. Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Source: Wired, Washington Post

At least one woman wore a plastic helmet while relaxing at Santa Monica beach. At the time there were also bush fires, so while the helmet protected him from ash, it didn’t stop smog from seeing in.

Santa Monica, California, USA. Nancy Young, 16, of Gardena, California, tries out a plastic Smog Helmet on the beach at Santa Monica. Bettmann/Getty

In 1958, the city even set up a smog relief team to provide residents with “fresh air” brought from outside of Los Angeles. Whether it was effective is unclear.

Mariellen Morgan wipes away the tears as she is about to get some smog relief from Hank McCullough of West Hollywood on November 25, 1958 as eye-irritating smog tormented residents for the third day in a row. Bettmann/Getty

Smog continued to cover the city as Los Angeles expanded, which meant more factories and highways. The city did have Air Pollution Control, an early pollution monitoring group.

9th November 1961: Members of the ‘Air Pollution Control’ measure the concentration of atmospheric pollutants in Los Angeles, California. Alan Band/Keystone/Getty

Continuing into the 1960s, parts of Los Angeles were getting 200 smoggy days per year.

General view of the air pollution that hovers over the city circa 1967 in Los Angeles, California. Martin Mills/Getty

Here’s Grand Avenue in 1967.

Grand Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets view from the same spot 10/10/67 shows progress in building construction but not much change in smog control. Bettmann/Getty

Here, the outline of the sun can be made out thanks to Los Angeles smog, early in the 1970s.

Railroad and transmission lines near Salton Sea. Hazy sun is caused by Los Angeles smog in 1972. E.P.A

When the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, Congress approved an amendment that allowed California to incorporate harsher pollution controls than the rest of the state. It had to deal with the problem.

A pall of smog lies over the Los Angeles skyline, July 15, 1978. Air quality officials warned everyone to stay indoors as severely polluted air hung over much of Southern California. Nick Ut / AP

But that didn’t mean the pollution just went away. This is hazy Los Angeles in 1972.

Sunlight and smog in 1972. E.P.A

Here, that same year, smog was trapped against the mountains.

Smog in Los Angeles in 1972. E.P.A

And smog still covered the San Gabriel Mountains at times in 1972.

Smog in San Gabriel Mountains in 1972. E.P.A

In 1973, Los Angeles skyscrapers were blanketed in smog.

Heavy smog in Los Angeles in 1973. E.P.A

But at least the shape of the buildings could be made out.

Sunlight and smog in Los Angeles in 1973. E.P.A

And officers were actively monitoring the highways.

Air pollution control department officers checking for violators on highway. Gene Daniels/EPA

In 1975, the Santa Monica mountains near the west edge of Los Angeles were hard to see in the haze.

Haze in the Santa Monica mountains near the west edge of Los Angeles in 1975. E.P.A

Over the years, the air quality in Los Angeles has improved, and that was largely due to the Clean Air Act, which helped lower emissions from cars and industry.

Smog over LA monitored by NASA scientists and air pollution center in 1972. E.P.A

But the city’s air quality future is far from clear.

Los Angeles reactive pollutant program, a multi-agency air pollution research study in 1973. E.P.A

The 2018 National Climate Assessment warned that “climate change will worsen existing air pollution levels.”

A view of downtown from Hollywood with the Capitol Records tower and lots of smog in the foreground in February 1995 in Los Angeles, California. Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

While LA doesn’t look as bad as it did before the Clean Air Act, it still gets smoggy days. The city has a population of 4 million people, but 8 million cars.

Thick smog obscured the mountains from downtown LA on September 17, 2019. The day before, you could see the mountains. Rebecca Harrington/Business Insider

Sources: Los Angeles Times, CA DMV

This story was originally published in January 2020 and has been updated.

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