Coal mining wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable job 100-years-ago. Coal miners had to face some of the harshest work conditions in the world. They were always immersed in dust and darkness, and at the time, there was no such thing as workers’ rights. These rare photos give a glimpse into the tough lives of coal miners 100 years ago.
Back then, since there were no workers’ rights, the workers were expected to work at least six days per week. They didn’t have weekends off, no sick pay, and they weren’t compensated if they were injured on the job. If a worker died on the job, their family would scramble to replace them to keep from losing their house. The life of a coal miner 100-years-ago was far from easy.
In the early 1800s, soft coal was extracted from most mines. This type of coal contained a tarry compound called bitumen, which we now call asphalt. This was used for sealing roads, but it was dangerous. The coal produced large quantities of firedamp, which is a blend of gasses that can easily explode. This made for a hazardous work environment.
Coal Mines Around the U.S.
It wasn’t just one part of the U.S. where coal miners worked. The coal industry was booming in the 1800s in several states including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The Western Coal Fields stretched as far as Indiana. People from all over the U.S. flocked to these areas in hopes of landing a coal mining job because it was incredibly lucrative.
Miner By Blood
In 1902, The Independent interviewed a coal miner in Pennsylvania. He was 35-years-old at the time, and mining coal was in his blood. His father was a miner, and he grew up around the work. It was the only line of work that he would ever see himself in. He wasn’t blind to the dangers of the job, however. He actually discussed the risks of his career in The Independent’s article.
A Description Of His Job
The man told the reporter that from Monday morning to Saturday evening, he was underground working in the coal mine. He went down when it was still dark outside and came up when the sun had set. This meant that he would only see the sun on Sundays. He said that if it wasn’t water trickling into the ditches, it was dangerous gas. He said that his job made him age quickly, between the powder, smoke, and hazardous air, it made his face look old and caused asthma.
The man says that he and his three brothers didn’t get a good education. Children in mining families and mining communities often quit school at the age of 12 to start working in the mines. They started off in the screen room as breaker boys. This was a very tedious job. The boys had to sort the coal by hand, separating it based on impurities. It wasn’t just 12-year-old boys who held this job. Elderly miners also took the job when they could no longer handle the hard labor.
After working as breaker boys, children would be promoted to drivers, and then laborers. These jobs were much more dangerous than working in the screen room. The boy in this photo is Frank At 14-years-old, he spent a year in the hospital after a coal car crushed his leg.
Coal mining families didn’t live in homes all over town. They lived in communities, often in wood-built homes that were falling apart. This photo was taken in 1937, and it is a coal miners’ community in Birmingham, Alabama. The houses were often just a few rooms. All of the children would share a room and a bed. If there were very young children, they would sleep in bureau drawers. As long as the community was conveniently located by the mine, the workers didn’t care much about the conditions.
Many coal miners were not paid with cash. Instead, they were paid on a coupon or “script” system. Rather than money, the employees were given tokens that could be redeemed at the company store. This was great for the company because they made a killing on the food and other goods that their employees purchased at extremely inflated prices. In many cases, poor wages weren’t enough for families to make ends meet. Between the cost of rent, butcher and grocery costs, church dues, and industrial insurance, the workers barely had enough money to put food on the table. Considering how dangerous and difficult the job, you would think that they would earn fair pay. Unfortunately, fair wages and work conditions didn’t come about until the mid-1900s.