Orson Welles and RKO studio’s episode of The Shadow featuring Blue Coal commercials.
Blue Coal – Initially, I thought the term was coined to describe the bluish iridescent sheen reflected by holding anthracite coal in certain light. I remember doing this as a kid, adding it to my rock collection, and thinking, “ooh, shiny.” However, my recent indoctrination into Pennsylvania’s coal culture has taught me an important lesson in history and … marketing???
That’s right, marketing. Blue Coal is a trademarked brand, not an adjective as I had originally thought. In 1939, the Glen Alden Coal Company actually painted their coal blue as a marketing ploy to distinguish its coal from that of its competitors. But the company took it one step further by actually promoting its product as being superior, longer burning, and even more “healthful” than other coal. No wonder the PR “spin” profession was so poorly regarded in that era!
My research on Blue Coal led me to a 2008 NEPA Crossroads discussion board where members were discussing the various ways companies marked their coal in the 1940s. One contributor suggested that the practice of painting coal was abandoned when the EPA banned the use of lead-based house paint circa 1978.
Yikes! Does that mean Blue Coal’s “famous blue tint” was a leaded health hazard? My research came up empty until I found this gem tucked away on page 20 of a 1991 report on the Huber Coal Breaker by the Historic American Engineering Record:
Described as a ‘harmless tint’ used for consumers’ protection in the company’s promotional film produced in the 1940s, no evidence seems to exist regarding the chemical composition of the coloring.
In other words, we don’t know. And those who do know sure aren’t talking. However, the Glen Alden sales division wasn’t concerned with the chemistry behind the campaign when it encouraged customers to “take the guesswork out of fuel buying” by purchasing “America’s Finest Anthracite” with the “famous blue tint.
Blue Coal advertisements live on today in podcasts of RKO Studio’s “The Shadow,” featuring Orson Welles. Check out a partial clip at the top of this post.