Working within a collective productive system, the individual mine employee had little opportunity even to ameliorate his occupational problems. Since quitting his job was the only alternative open to him, his ability to rid himself of occupational problems was directly proportional to his mobility.
Contemporary observers disagreed over the mine worker’s ability to change his position. George Virtue reported a “remarkable lack of mobility” among the anthracite miners.1 Peter Roberts, however, described the anthracite communities’ social structure as being “in a condition of flux,” through which “the thrifty members of our society rise to more congenial employments.”2 The disagreement reflects different standards of measurement and, possibly, different interpretations of mobility. I use the term “mobility” in this book to mean movement from one occupation to another regardless of change in status or in geographical position.
Certain structural elements in the anthracite industry encouraged geographic mobility. Because they were mining a mineral found exclusively in a relatively isolated area of northeastern Pennsylvania, the mine operators depended on imported labor. The very presence of the anthracite workers demonstrated their tendency to be geographically mobile, and there is no reason to assume that those who had already moved would suddenly become stationary. Also, in the company houses and towns, built in locations necessitated by the isolation of the mines, the mine employees were denied the right to own property; otherwise they might have been more inclined to remain in one region. Frequent suspensions to regulate production and quiet labor disturbances prompted many to seek work elsewhere. Finally, the well-developed transportation system became an excellent way out.
When mine workers left the anthracite regions they went one of two ways. Those who had come recently from Europe often returned to the “old country”; in 1891, for example, a group of about 200 Welsh miners in Scranton returned en masse to their homeland. Those who could not—or would not—recross the Atlantic went west.
Operators of the bituminous coal mine frequently encouraged the anthracite miners to move west by advertising for labor in regional newspapers. In 1877 the Waverly Coal and Coke Company of Pittsburgh ran an advertisement for workmen in the Scranton Republican; two years later mine operators in the state of Wyoming experienced a great response to their “Men Wanted” ads. Some miners who responded to such advertisements found the western mines inhospitable. Wilkes-Barre miners who journeyed to Krebs, Indiana in 1890 reported that they lived in small huts and were forced to live and work with strike-breakers. The disillusioned miners would gladly have returned to the anthracite fields if they had had sufficient money. Although the miners at Krebs were not the only ones sending back unfavorable reports of working conditions farther west, the migration to the soft coal mines continued unabated.
While some anthracite mine workers sought work in western bituminous coal mines, others pursued new careers in the west. In 1872, 200 men left Beaver Meadows for Texas, and another group went to the Black Hills of Dakota. Western cities were also magnets that drew ambitious and adventurous men; in 1893 a group left Pottsville to find work in Chicago.
Although difficult to document, there is ample evidence, both circumstantial and direct, that the individual mine worker could solve his occupational problems by “moving on.” The freedom with which he could reach a managerial position within the collective productive system or change his occupation while remaining in the anthracite regions also influenced his ability to reach an individual solution to his occupational problems.
A model of upward movement within the anthracite industry can be constructed from the empirical evidence furnished by the biographical sections of county histories.3 A random sample of 165 men in managerial positions indicates that mine workers could advance into managerial positions, although the greatest concentration of mine workers was at the inside foreman level.
Miners in Managerial Positions
Source: Compiled by author.
The inside foreman was responsible for the mine’s day-to-day operation. He instructed “the workmen in their several duties and vocations,” had charge of safety, and negotiated contracts with the miners. The performance of such duties demanded a practical knowledge of mining which could be gained only by working in the mines. In 1885 the state recognized the need for work experience for inside foremen by requiring a certificate which was granted to those who had passed an examination and had “given satisfactory evidence of at least five years practical experience as a miner.”4
Superintendents found practical training useful; more than half of them began their careers in the mines. Exemplary performance as an inside foreman often resulted in promotion to superintendent. But the growing demand that superintendents have technical as well as practical skill soon pushed the managerial position beyond the reach of the average mine worker.
The skills required for the position of outside foreman made it less accessible to the mine worker than the position of either inside foreman or superintendent. Responsible for the maintenance of the surface plant as well as the preparation of coal, the outside foreman required for his job little experience in practical mining. Ten of 18 nonminers who were outside foremen were carpenters before their appointment.
An unexpectedly high percentage of mine operators began their careers in the mines. Four of the ten mine operators who had been miners were over 64 years of age, which implies that they were able to enter the industry before the entrance costs became prohibitive. Another mine worker who became an operator had a father who was an operator. Although scanty, the information on the occupations of the remaining five members of the sample indicates that they were highly mobile before becoming mine operators.
Miners at Various Management Levels
Source: Compiled by author.
The number of mine workers who were in managerial levels of the anthracite industry clearly demonstrates that opportunities for advancement were present within the collective productive system. But when considered in the light of the total labor force (over 100,000 men and boys), the opportunities for advancement were limited. At the lowest and most accessible level of management, inside foreman, there was one position for every 200 employees.
The mine worker who was unable to take advantage of the limited opportunities for promotion within the industry could still seek a solution to his occupational problems by changing occupation. The pattern of movement away from the anthracite industry is based on information in the biographical sections of the county histories mentioned above. A random survey of 498 persons engaged in the professions, industry, business, and politics, indicates that the mine worker found it more difficult to move away from the industry than to move upward within it. In Table 23 we see that there was a continuum of accessibility to the various occupational categories.
The professions were least accessible to the mine worker. Access to specific professions, however, varied greatly. Education was the main determinant of the mine worker’s ability to enter professions. Two of the four pharmacists who worked in the mines, for example, worked less than three years in the mines, and the third left the mines while young enough to learn another trade. Only one mobile miner became a pharmacist directly, and he entered college after thirty-three years in the mines. The single dentist who started in the mines left them after two years. Both lawyers studied law in local law offices at night. Teaching apparently required little formal education; one ex-miner who had become a teacher described himself as “self-educated.”
Miners in Other Occupations
Source: Compiled by author.
The parent’s ability to give his child a chance for a better life was instrumental in helping the mine worker to escape into the professions. One of the two journalists listed in Table 24 got his break when his father was appointed postmaster, and the other mine worker-turned-journalist listed his father’s occupation as “merchant.” Both physicians’ fathers were also merchants.
The professions remained nearly closed to the mine worker trying to solve his own occupational problem. Only those who were able to leave the mines at an early age or who had fathers who were already mobile could hope to enter the professions. Since the ability to leave the mines at an early age implies that the parent had become mobile, it seems likely, judging from the sample, that entry into the professions was restricted to a second or later generation of mobile mine workers.
Mine workers found it slightly easier to move into managerial or entrepreneurial roles in other industries than into the professions. Possession of the prerequisite skills at the managerial level, however, was a formidable barrier even to the mobile mine worker. William Charles, the only mine worker who became a manager, left the mines after two years to become a machinist; working as a machinist gave him the experience and training needed to become manager of the Hazleton Machine Shops.
Occupational histories of the mine workers who became entrepreneurs vary, but we can determine two patterns of mobility. Five of the mine workers in the entrepreneurial sample (Table 25) left the mines before they were 20. Their comparative youth suggests that, as in the case of the managers, skills were a major stumbling block to the mine worker aspiring to become an industrialist. Yet four of the remaining six miners in the sample first worked in the mines for 18 years or more. The long years in the mines enabled them to accumulate the necessary money to enter another industry.
The need for less money initially made business more attractive to the mine worker than did industry. Mine workers were concentrated in the liquor and hotel businesses (Table 26)—enterprises which promised a rapid turnover of money and whose greatest asset was good will. The overwhelming majority (seven of the eight) of mine workers who were agents were in insurance, a field with fewer capital demands than real estate. The relatively high investment commitment, combined with the need for special skills, made lumber and building almost prohibitive to the mine worker. Occupational histories of mine workers in the mercantile and livery stable categories were too varied to be interpretable.
The occupational histories of the three ex-miners in the banking sample show that they were highly mobile. An example is John P. McGinty, president of the First National Bank of Tamaqua. McGinty left the mines to open a grocery store; later he became a brewery agent, and this led to the establishment of a wholesale liquor business. Next he built his own brewery, and finally combined his position as president of a brewery with the presidency of a bank.
The political sample—those persons whose livelihood depended primarily on office-holding—contains the highest percentage of former miners. The concentration of mine workers among the politicians can be explained by the occupational requirements of a personal following and an acceptable reputation, both of which could be acquired with a minimal economic outlay.
Education and capital resources were the major obstacles to the mine workers’ occupational mobility. Yet we can see that an impressive number of mine workers surmounted the obstacles. When compared to the total labor force in the anthracite industry, however, the number who were mobile becomes insignificant.
The nature of the individual solution must be questioned. The departure of a relatively small number of mine workers was not a constructive alternative to the problems inherent in mining anthracite. In fact, their leaving hardly made a dent in the collective productive system; the miners’ problems would remain regardless of the action of any one individual. Nor did the flight of a few—or even many—mine workers force the operators to change the conditions of the system. Opportunities for escape were so limited that the influx of immigrants more than offset the exodus of some mine workers. Seen from the point of view of those in the collective productive system, the individualistic solution simply meant a change in personnel. The failure of the solution to remedy basic faults in the system made collective action the only possible method for solving the system’s problems.