In the late nineteenth century, young “breaker boys” worked in anthacite coal mines in Pennsylvania removing impurities such as slate from the coal before it was shipped out. The coal would be broken into smaller pieces in the coal breakers and the young workers, hunched over conveyor belts, would pick through it to remove contaminants.
In 1908, the National Child Labor Committee hired the photographer Lewis Hine to photograph children at work. Hine’s photos of the “breaker boys” and other child miners helped build public support for legislation barring child labor.
Coal miners worked long hours inside the mine, often traveling by elevator deep underground to extract coal from the coal seam. In the nineteenth century, miners worked largely by hand alongside animal labor. As new technology emerged, underground mining increasingly depended on heavy machinery.
Company towns like the Stonega coal camp near the town of Appalachia, Virginia included the mine and related mining facilities, as well as houses, a commissary (company store), and amusement hall. All was owned by the company. The company towns doubled as a way to attract and support workers and as a means to subject employees and their families to company control.
Being a coal miner was a hard job that often started at a young age. “Breaker boys” would begin their employment in the mines by sifting through the coal and pulling out slate and other contaminants. As they grew bigger and stronger, they would move into the mine itself.
In this 1902 account by Rev. John McDowell, what are some of the particular hazards of the job?
How was the coal miner paid and supervised by the company?
Coal operators resisted miners’ efforts to organize unions in the coal mines to improve pay and working conditions. Labor contracts, such as the one attached here, explicitly barred workers from joining the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) or the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Why would a worker sign one of these contracts? If a mine’s workers wanted to organize a union, how would they go about mobilizing workers who had signed these agreements?
Coal companies used their financial power and their control over the land to control their labor force. The companies established settlements for workers located next to the coal mines. The company built and controlled the housing, the commissary (or store), and many of the other amenities, such as the amusement hall, available to workers and their families.
In this 1890 report on company stores in West Virginia, how did the stores function as a way to increase the leverage of the company over its workers?
“Sixteen Tons” is a popular song about the hardships faced by coal miners that was first written and recorded by Merle Travis in 1946, and then subsequently performed by many others, including Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Weavers, and Johnny Cash (accompanying video). Merle Travis was from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where many of his family members were coal miners. Key lines in “Sixteen Tons” about the increasing indebtedness of the miner to the company store reportedly came from Travis’s brother and father, who were coal miners..