Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935

Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935

Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935

Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935

Synopsis

"Coalcracker Culture traces the evolution of a distinct regional culture in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. The study begins by establishing the region's industrial and social contexts. With a handful of companies controlling over ninety percent of total production, the anthracite industry was one of the most formidable cartels in American history. Overcapitalization, first in the form of excess plant and, later, as a large bonded debt, forced the cartel to maintain low labor costs and high profit margins. It secured the surplus of workers required by its labor policy by recruiting immigrants; as many as twenty-six languages were spoken in the area at one time. As a result, coal region society fractured as each ethnic group strove to preserve its identity and project its influence in the larger community." "Recognizing that work provided a diverse population with its only shared set of experiences, Aurand traces the development of anthracite deep mining. He discovers that despite technological innovations, the anthracite miner remained a tool user and retained control of his behavior on the job. But the consequences of mining were brutal; in a very real sense the miner traded his life for a job. The industry's labor policy funded a precarious standard of living." "Aurand then turns his attention to the values fostered by the work of deep mining anthracite. He finds that miners valued the sense of freedom and accomplishment derived from their job. But the price of occupational freedom, physical destruction either quickly by accident or through the slow suffocation of black lung, was steep. Mine workers valued physical toughness for it alone permitted them to cope with their strenuous and dangerous work. The knowledge that they traded their lives for a job generated an overarching fear of losing their income." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

THE TERM “COALCRACKER” USUALLY DEFINES A PERSON HAILING FROM the anthracite coal regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The expression, however, carries more than a geographical designation. Writing at the turn of the last century, Francis H. Nichols described the area as “a sort of separate and distinct state.” Modern readers may reject Nichols’s notion as fantasy, for the area never enjoyed the sovereign attributes of statehood. But Nichols was a victim of the imprecise language of his era rather than guilty of exaggeration. The hard coalfields form a discernible cultural region. Language is the most obvious aspect of culture and the inhabitants of the area speak in a unique idiom. More importantly, they share a set of belief patterns that informs their behavior. The purpose of this book is to trace the historical evolution of coalcracker culture.

My first task was to set the time parameters for the study. I chose to begin at 1835, for by that time anthracite mining was an established industry with a growing market. Several factors suggested the end date. The fact that the industry was in slow decline was one of the more obvious. Cultural concerns also influenced the decision. By the 1930s the region, never totally isolated from the larger society, became increasingly exposed to mass culture through radio, motion pictures, and the automobile. Finally, the work of mining anthracite underwent tremendous change as the industry began to switch from deep to open pit mining. In 1926, for example, the Philadelphia and Reading, the industry’s largest producer, derived only 6 percent of its output from open pits or “strippings.” A decade later strippings accounted for 25 percent of its production.

Having established the time frame for the study, I began the investigation by delineating the industrial and social development of the region. I found that the anthracite mining industry suffered from overcapitalization, reflected first in excess plant and, then, as a crushing bonded debt, that forced it to maintain low labor costs while artificially maintaining high prices. The industry relied heavily upon immigrants to provide the surplus of workers its labor policy required. As a result, coal region communities . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.