When Stoke Stokes

George missed his daughter terribly.

During World War II, he and his wife, Clara, had sent Katherine overseas to Branksome Hall, a prestigious boarding school in Toronto, far from the Nazi bombers flying their destructive missions across the English Channel.

After the war, the family remained separated. Katherine continued her studies at Branksome, while her parents put their lives back together in England. Even though air raid sirens had gone quiet almost two years earlier, living conditions remained tough in England’s industrial heartland.

Repairing British factories and restoring essential civic services were top priorities after Germany’s surrender in 1945. Badly impaired by the bombings, the country’s infrastructure to distribute fuels such as coal and petroleum was still hobbled. Labor problems exacerbated the challenges. So George and Clara knew that domestic comforts like reliable heating and lights would have to wait. Though, given the joy and relief they’d felt at the end of the war, the discomfort was negligible.

By early 1947, coal stocks in the United Kingdom were severely depleted. The hardship — dubbed the Coal Crisis — was aggravated by a winter so unusually cold and snowy it made international news. So, in a dimly lit home, George sat at his desk, pulled out a fountain pen and considered the postcard he’d bought from a street vendor.

His eyes were drawn to the ominous chimneys discharging smoke. Even the sight of it on paper seemed to make his eyes sting. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but then, not much was in the aftermath of the biggest war the world had ever seen.

Energy usage and prosperity have always been linked. In 1947, as Stoke-on-Trent rebuilt its manufacturing infrastructure, these sooty emissions were emblems of a thriving economy.

George’s gaze drifted from the smoke in the picture to the fireplace opposite his desk. Lumps of coal hissed in its small cement cavity. He felt warmed by the sight, but shivered in demurral. Shaking his head, George returned to the postcard, neatly penning a note of reassurance to Katherine:

It isn’t quite as bad as this during the coal crisis but it’s awfully cold.
 – Lots of love, Dad

Bundled up in his Chesterfield coat and as much cable-knit wool as he could find, George ventured out into the damp morning on February 24, 1947. He reached the bright red pillar-box and, after checking that the two-pence stamp was affixed, posted his card. He spent the walk back imagining its long voyage across the Atlantic, a voyage he’d dearly love to take, if only to see his daughter again.

A SCENE ONLY DICKENS COULD LOVE

Sixty years later and thousands of miles away, I found that postcard at an antique fair in western Canada, sandwiched in a shoebox among hundreds of other collectibles.

I like rummaging through old postcards like the one sent to Katherine, looking for imagery that reflects energy themes from yesteryear — old mills, ironworks, steam locomotives or hydro-dams. If I’m lucky, people like the father I’m calling George have also penned sentiments to their acquaintances.

Let’s be honest though: postcards are mostly for making family and friends jealous. It’s the smug “Wish you were here!” scrawled over a sunny beach, misty Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower backlit by a Parisian sunset.

George’s postcard is hardly a feel-good, envy-inducing image. When I first saw it, I figured he’d be saying, “Wish I was there! Get me outta here!”

And what about the card’s designer? Why would anyone choose to put this imagery on a postcard? Three chimneys in the foreground belch dark smoke from burning coal. In the background, dozens more spew soot. It’s a grim industrial silhouette that suggests a dying city gasping for breath. What civic booster could think such a post-apocalyptic landscape would entice anyone to wish they were there?

Charles Dickens would have loved this photo. In his 1852 novel, Bleak House, the grand master of dreariness wrote of London: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

Judging by this card, the sun appeared to be long dead in 1947. Its dismal scene is not Dickensian London, but post-war Stoke-on-Trent, a centuries-old manufacturing center four hours northwest of London that helped birth the gears, levers and searing kilns of the Industrial Revolution. It’s the type of place populated with endless rows of brick buildings, each full of gargantuan machinery and combustion chambers, any of which could have easily glazed a careless worker into blue-collar crockery.

The card’s catchy slogan — “When Stoke Stokes” — makes me smile. I admire the cleverness of these three short words. Combined with the imagery, they conjure a scene of someone with a puffed-up chest, bellowing, “Gather round, gather round, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Marvel at the impressive sight! Witness what happens when the pottery kilns, fireplaces, ironworks and coal-fired machinery of Stoke-on-Trent are all stoked up at once!”

This kind of industrial bravado was an anthropogenic theme that ran through the ferrous DNA of many European manufacturing towns like Stoke-on-Trent in 1947. But that still doesn’t explain why anyone would put such an environmentally offensive image on a postcard.


Why would anyone choose to put this imagery on a postcard?

Related Vignettes

FILTHY RICH

Deltiology, or the study of old postcards, is, I admit, an eccentric pursuit. Yet it’s great fun and offers a unique sense of what people were thinking about in bygone eras.

Putting the card aside, I flip through my energy-biased postcard collection. In each one, I note similarly unappealing industrial imagery — bizarrely commonplace from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries.

A gruesome 1910 postcard from South Africa gives me pause: whale carcasses transported en masse on rail cars for “refining” into lamp oil. Several from the same time period depict denuded forests, their Californian or Texan landscapes re-seeded with the dense wooden stubble of oil derricks. On others, smoke plumes look as if they’ve been manually smudged onto chimneys. In addition to emphasizing industrial operations, these sooty embellishments seem to accentuate, even glorify, the drama of air pollution.

Whale hunting was a grim chapter in our history. Although whale oil began being replaced by petroleum in the 1870s, the hunts continued into the 1900s.

The more I look at my collection, the more I see a common denominator of economic machismo. Energy systems based on fuels like coal, whale oil and crude oil gave muscle to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. For over 200 years, these fuels and factories created wealth. Making stuff on a grand scale represented economic power; therefore, gritty industrialization was a virtue.

In other words, the subliminal message is “Big things that make a mess reflect well on where we live — proof we have all the privileges of economic power and comforts of modern living.” There’s a perverse amplification here: the dirtier the image, the louder the message about wealth and power. Rather than it depicting a city’s last gasp, this postcard was Stoke-on-Trent thumping its industrial chest.

From a 21st-century perspective, my thesis may be hard to swallow. But recall former US President Richard Nixon, who praised excessive energy consumption as late as 1973 in these remarks: “… there are only 7 percent of the people of the world living in the United States, and we use 30 percent of all the energy, in the United States. That isn’t bad; that is good. That means that we are the richest, strongest people in the world and that we have the highest standard of living in the world. That is why we need so much energy, and may it always be that way.”

This controversial president did sign major amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1970 and even formed the Environmental Protection Agency, but his energy sentiments were more in tune with the end of a long era where the pursuit of GDP, power and Western comfort trumped the environment.

I experienced energy consumption synonymous with smoke stacks and tailpipes firsthand. As a kid in the 1970s, I grew up breathing leaded gasoline, sitting in the back of a big, buoyant Pontiac, exploring California’s urban landscapes from its freeways. It was a great feeling of adventure, but my eyes burned from skies tinted with an orange-brown patina of smog. I was sensitive to the irritant, but because my parents didn’t complain, neither did I. Thinking back on such complacency, I guess that they, like most others at that time, were duped into believing environmental degradation was a normal trade-off for the freedom of gas-guzzling mobility.


There’s a perverse amplification here: the dirtier the image, the louder the message about wealth and power.

PERCEPTION IS REALITY

As I pick up Katherine’s card again, my thoughts about hidden energy messages still hang in the air.

I find it hard to believe George was making a veiled statement about industrial strength to his daughter. He probably just wanted to remind her of home and assure her that, despite the cold, all was well. Still, what an odd choice. His loving note contrasts sharply with that unloved (and downright hard-to-love) environment in 1947 England.

Flipping through all my industrial postcards, I remind myself that unsightly energy use was pragmatically glorified because it was seen as beneficial to the economy. Decades later, the way we portray and deliver the imagery is different, but one thing hasn’t changed: the images we’re presented with both reflect and influence our societal attitudes.

In 1950, beachgoers enjoy a day of fun and sun on Venice Beach, oblivious to the oil derricks towering behind them.

It occurs to me that social media is our modern-day postcard — dispatches from lands near and far flashing a personal perspective, if not an opinion. And when it comes to environmental debates about energy, social media is hugely influential. In fact, it’s informing how our energy decisions are made and accepted — or, more often, rejected.

Yet how true is the message depicted by a photograph? Was George’s postcard an authentic representation of Stoke-on-Trent? He answers that himself: “It isn’t quite as bad as this …” So, is one photograph of a dirty oilfield indicative of the business at large? Or is a wind farm in a bucolic field really as idyllic as it appears?

Symbols of the new age of transportation and industrial might, oil gushers were once glorified. This explains why this 1935 image was embellished with a plume gushing from the derrick.

Energy leaders seeking to power our future, whether by fossil fuels, renewables or whatever’s on the horizon, must always remember they’re in the image business. People will judge a book by its cover, and how an energy company visually presents its operations translates into perceptions — true or not — that shape public opinion and even government policy.

Putting my postcards away, I smile, realizing their message runs much deeper than “Wish you were here.”