The Indianapolis of Oscar Charleston’s youth was notable for its dirt. In the early 1900s soot would become so integral to the city’s landscape that it served as a literary device in the books written by Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington about the era, especially his Growth-trilogy novels: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Turmoil, and National Avenue. Black soot streaks the city’s statues and residents’ curtains in The Magnificent Ambersons. At times it is so thick it can be shoveled.
True to the booster spirit, the city’s new-rich industrialists take great pride in the dirt. The Turmoil’s capitalist protagonist, Dan Oliphant,
was the city incarnate. He loved it, calling it God’s country, as he called the some Prosperity, breathing the dingy cloud with relish. And when soot fell upon his cuff he chuckled; he could have kissed it. “It’s good! It’s good!” he said, and smacked his lips in gusto. “Good, clean soot: it’s our life-blood, God bless it!” The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. “Smoke’s what brings your husbands’ money home on Saturday night,” he told them, jovially. . . . “You go home and ask your husbands what smoke puts in their pockets out o’ the pay-roll—and you’ll come around next time to get me to turn out more smoke instead o’ chokin’ it off!”
Oliphant’s words were no mere fictional fancy. In Indianapolis as elsewhere smoke was often regarded as a tangible symbol of progress—and Indianapolis had progress in spades. As one resident recalled, smoke fell from the sky so thickly that “if you rocked on the back porch all morning and then went in for lunch, when you went out again after lunch you had to clean the chair thoroughly again.” Anti-smoke ordinances passed in the late 1890s and early 1900s provided little if any abatement of the nuisance.
The city’s ubiquitous smoke signified an obsession with growth. In Tarkington’s portrayal, turn-of-the-century Indianapolis was fairly frenzied by a “profound longing for size” such as that which drove Dan Oliphant. “Year by year the longing increased until it became an accumulated force: We must Grow! We must be Big! We must be Bigger! Bigness means Money! And the thing began to happen.” The factories and, just a bit later, the automobile were the primary instruments by which the “thing began to happen,” argued Tarkington. Together they brought “Death [to] the God of Things as They Are.”