16 Tons

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In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines were often located in isolated low-income rural areas. Working in the coal mine was often the only local source of any sort of decent living.

It was not unusual for the mine owners to build company towns near the mines. The coal company owned everything in these company towns. Houses of varying quality (none very large) were rented to the coal miners with the rent being deducted from wages.

Often the only retailer in these mining towns was a general store owned by the coal company – “The Company Store.” Coal miners and their families could shop at the company store on credit, with the amount due to the Company Store deducted from wages.

Since it was the only store in town, whatever the Company Store charged for food and other necessities was what the miners and their wives bought. (Coal mining was dirty. Most work involved long hours of heavy physical labor in the mine where it was pitch-dark and the miners worked by lantern light and a small headlamp that consumed lantern oil. All the miners were men.

Women were also involved in heavy physical labor, including hand-washing clothing that was filthy from mine dust, caring for children who often had no established place to play, and stretching basic ingredients to feed a family until the next paycheck.

For the many mines located in Appalachia, unions would not be an option only much, much later, if ever.

5 thoughts on “16 Tons”

  1. I would note that conditions, for both men and women, were largely the same as described in: rural agricultural regions; urban industrial regions; coastal port regions (whether docks for trade and/or fishing); pretty much anywhere.

    Now, the company towns and stores were frequently abusive – although, from some accounts, marginally better than the slumlord domains that surrounded many industrial concentrations. But that was a symptom of insufficient competitive capitalism, not insufficient coercive socialism.

  2. Indeed, when you need a job, any job is better than no job.

    And coal mining wasn’t all misery and exploitation.

    It’s a different perspective when you’re a local citizen being displaced by cheaper labor from immigrants, but from the point of view of immigrants fleeing (for example) pretty bad Russian pressure, they were a great opportunity.

    In areas with lots of hard coal (anthracite Pennsylvania, for example), some of the mines were in the vicinity of very lively small cities (Shenandoah, PA, for example (c.f., Molly Maguires)), and “company town” economics did not apply. These were regular hotbeds of successive waves of immigrant groups, because you could earn a lot working in the anthracite mines without a background of skills or language as a first generation immigrant (and his sons).

    My husband’s from Shenandoah, of Lithuanian descent. Between the Welsh, Irish, and various eastern Europeans succeeding each other, there were churches, synagogues, social clubs, and merchants of all sorts of ethnicities (“I’ll make you a good deal, boychik — I used to sell furniture to your father in the old country”), surrounded by large regions of Pennsylvania Dutch farmland with good hunting and fishing. It was something of a working class paradise (of a sort) — a family business bar on every corner and in the middle of every block (each selling convenience supplies late at night), multiple movie theatres, and summer outdoor entertainment (this is where the Dorsey Brothers came from) when NYC groups did their summer tours. Things were so lively that it was referred to as “the only Western town in the East” (Water Winchell, during the Prohibition).

    Now, I won’t say hard coal mining was pleasant or safe to do (like many jobs). Nor was it good for the environment — I saw the area before it got cleaned up, and Centralia with its perpetual underground mine fire isn’t far away — but it’s fine now. But, alas, it’s no longer profitable to mine there. The primary industry is now the prison system, and the latest immigrants are inmate families. The original ethnic groups graduated and dispersed a generation or two ago.

    Nothing lasts forever. If you stay rooted in one place and hope your children can make the same living your father did doing the same things, you are doomed to disappointment in most cases, due not necessarily to oppression, but to the nature of economic variety and change — family farms may outlast ethnic bakeries, but even occupations of more security (medicine, law) are subject to competition and not immune to relocation. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of government to artificially interfere with the operation of the competitive market — they only make it worse in the long run.

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