Scholars have long lamented the neglect of Pennsylvania’s history during its “Gilded Age” (the latter part of the nineteenth century).1 In no area of the Commonwealth’s development is this oversight more marked than in that of the anthracite (hard coal) regions. A virtually unexplored desert lies between the well-documented “Molly Maguires” and the coal strike of 1902.2
The coal regions are too important to suffer historical indifference. Throughout the late nineteenth century the hard coal industry was a major employer in Pennsylvania. Anthracite provided important fuel to the iron industry.3 The hard coal regions were among the first state areas to yield to corporate domination.
The anthracite regions of Pennsylvania also played an important role in the economic development of the nation. Anthracite was marketed more widely than any other coal. Its economic influence extended beyond the provision of fuel: hard coal stimulated many pioneering developments in American railroading. Socially the anthracite regions underwent rapid industrialization and assimilated every major ethnic group found in the nation, except Orientals and Puerto Ricans. Indeed, the area is a microcosm of American economic and social development.
Although the area can be placed within the mainstream of American history, the anthracite regions developed a unique identity. “A community of interests and the ties of labor unions,” Francis H. Nichols reported in 1902, “have so bound the [anthracite] counties together that they constitute a sort of separate and distinct state, called by its inhabitants ‘Anthracite.’”4
How did the anthracite regions develop their unique identity? The answer can be found by studying the largest group in the area, the mine workers, and their problems between 1869 and 1897. The two dates mark key institutional developments in the area. In 1869 the mine workers organized their first industry-wide union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, and in 1897 the United Mine Workers of America became firmly established in the region. During the same period the corporation rose to its dominant position within the industry.
What effects did these institutions have on social groups, values, and patterns of identification within the area? To answer that question I have adopted a functional approach to labor history. The functional approach begins with the assumption that work creates problems. By analyzing the work of mining coal it is possible to define the occupational problems of the miners and the alternative solutions to the problems. With a knowledge of the difficulties, one can measure the effectiveness of the miners’ response.
But a solution cannot be arrived at within a social vacuum. Each attempted response will affect, and in turn be conditioned by, other social groups and institutions. The physicial environment places restrictions on institutional development. The functional approach must therefore survey the total effect of these reciprocal influences.
By using the functional approach I found that the anthracite mine workers encountered two sets of problems—wages and the high accident rate in the mines. The organization of work precluded successful individual responses and compelled the mine workers to seek a collective response. Yet an environment disrupted by cultural, geo-economic, and ethnic forces made a collective response difficult. The obvious successes of their occasional unified efforts, however, forced the miners continually to strive to overcome the disruptive forces, and victory made the labor union the primary integrative force in the anthracite regions. In this way the labor union played a key role in the formation of a laboring class identity.
While the labor union reflected the needs of the mine workers, it also often sympathized with management. Concern over wages led labor to an analysis of the coal industry, from which they discovered that the industry suffered from a basic sickness. Incorrectly diagnosing the sickness as low prices resulting from overproduction, labor sought to maintain prices rather than attack management. The initial inclination of the mine workers to support capital permitted the middle class in the regions to receive the union in a more or less cordial fashion.
The middle class in the anthracite regions feared the vast economic, social, and political power of the mining industry. Local businessmen resented the company store and the exploitation of the mineral wealth of the region for the benefit of other areas. Shattered by the disruptive forces in their environment and prisoners of a parochialism which rarely extended beyond the political limits of a particular town, regional businessmen were unable to identify with a larger community. Rejecting the corporation as an integrative institution, the middle class accepted the labor union as a symbol of a larger community bound together by the problems of work.
In the end the large corporation often proved more ready to respond to the problems of the mine workers than did the small individual entrepreneur, perhaps because it could better afford to respond. The corporations, for example, voluntarily abolished their company stores. While big business fought legislation proposed by labor, it complied with safety and wage laws. Finally, most corporations sponsored paternalistic welfare plans for their employees which few entrepreneurs matched.
I am deeply indebted to Professor Ari Hoogenboom for his constructive criticism and constant inspiration. Professor Gerald Eggert read the entire manuscript and offered valuable advice, suggestions, and encouragement.
Mrs. Mary Ferry, librarian at the Hazleton Campus of The Pennsylvania State University, fulfilled an almost endless stream of requests. The late David W. Davis, curator of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, Ralph L. Hazeltine, director of the Wyoming Historical Society, and Robert C. Mattes, curator of the Lackawanna Historical Society, placed the resources of their respective organizations at my disposal. I would like to express particular thanks to Nicholas B. Wainwright, director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, for making the as yet unopened Reading Company Papers available to me.
Milton Cantor, managing editor of Labor History, granted me permission to use parts of my article “The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association” and William G. Shade, editor of Pennsylvania History, permitted the inclusion of portions of my article “The Anthracite Strike of 1887-88.” I am indebted to the Johns Hopkins Press, the McGraw-Hill Book Company, and the University of Pennsylvania Press for their permission to include copyrighted materials. I am particularly grateful to my wife, Frances D. Aurand, for her understanding and encouragement.
Harold W. Aurand