Harold W. Aurand was born in 1940 in the borough of Danville in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania and remained a life-long resident of the area. He passed away in 2012 in a Danville hospital. Raised in the classic coal town of Mt. Carmel, his grandfather and father were not coal miners but owners of an ice house. Educated in local schools, he strayed slightly out of the region to attend college at Franklin and Marshall, where he majored in history, and later for doctoral studies in history at Penn State University. Subsequently he had an illustrious 35-year career as a professor and administrator at the Hazelton campus of Penn State and actively engaged in public history projects and community civic and cultural affairs. Aurand also made a mark as a prolific historian, authoring 4 books and 15 scholarly journal articles that all focused on a subject dear to him: the anthracite coal industry and the lives of anthracite coal miners.1 A deep connection between place of origin and residence and enduring publication is rare among scholars, although for writers of fiction this is not uncommon. Aurand’s deep connection to place benefitted historians who followed in his footsteps and relied on his research, as well as general readers who enjoyed his homages to the anthracite region. We now benefit anew with the digital reissuing by Temple University Press of Aurand’s first book, From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers: The Social Ecology of an Industrial Union, 1869–1897.
First published by Temple University Press in 1971, From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers was a revised version of Aurand’s doctoral dissertation. Aurand faced challenges and opportunities with this research. As he began, there occurred an outpouring of studies on the Pennsylvania anthracite region by such scholars as Wayne Broehl, Rowland Berthoff, Robert Cornell, Victor Greene, and Clifton Yearly. Their work, in turn, had rested on a base of earlier published journal articles and books. Thus this was not newly tread scholarly terrain. Aurand also pursued his project during the emergence of the so-called New Social History. In the wake of the social protest movements of the 1960s and under the influence of European social historians, a new generation of U.S. historians arose, determined to study and write “history from below,” no longer attending to elites but rather focusing on the lives of everyday people who had been left out of traditional histories and the circumstances of their everyday lives. The new social historians also responded to the efflorescence of the social sciences at the time and they applied to their work the concepts, theories, and methods of sociologists, anthropologists, and economists.
Finding a niche of his own in the expanding scholarly literature on the Pennsylvania anthracite represented a challenge to Aurand and he opted to take a social science approach. (His later studies would be shaped more by the “history from below” edge of the New Social History.) In the introduction to From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers, he announced as his analytic way “the functional approach.” It is unclear from his text and footnotes how he came to this perspective; “systems theory” and “functionalism” were buzzwords among social scientists in the 1960s, but Aurand did not cite the particular scholars who might have influenced him.
What did Aurand mean by the “functional approach”? As he briefly explains in his introduction and what is manifest in the chapters that follow, it is attention to given factors that structure actions and events. Geology, economic imperatives, workplace circumstances, and demography specifically shape the history that Aurand tells in the core of his book.
The functional approach is apparent in most but not all of the chapters. It is up front in the first sections. He begins, for example, by explicating the unique eons-long geological processes that led to the formation of anthracite coal deep below the surface of the earth in what is now northeastern Pennsylvania. He further notes how the different formed pitches and thicknesses of the coal veins demanded different mining techniques, creating differing work circumstances for anthracite miners and divisions of experience, and ultimately hampering collective action on their part as they attempted to mobilize to challenge their employers and the exploitative conditions of their labor. Aurand then follows with an analysis of the economics of mining anthracite coal, emphasizing the large capital investments required. The high carbon content of anthracite is its special feature; it burns slower and more efficiently than softer coals. Compressed deeply underground over time with the inner heat of the earth burning off flammable impurities, the extraction of anthracite requires deep, extensive tunneling systems, heavy coal-breaking equipment to prepare usable chunks of coal for sale, and intensive labor inputs. This proved costly to mine operators, limiting profits. The building of transportation systems—first canals and then railroads—added to the expense, all leading to reliance on bank loans and investment funds. Debt payments and dividends were due to creditors no matter the vicissitudes of coal markets, and to meet periodic shortfalls in income, mine owners resorted to cutting labor costs, reducing wages, and charging miners more for tools and goods purchased at company stores. In response, strikes and even more incendiary actions by miners became pandemic in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region in the nineteenth century.
Aurand’s functional approach is further central in the critical chapters of the book on the late 1860s and 1870s that treat the rise and collapse of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), the first effort of anthracite miners to establish a regional union on a sustained basis. Aurand provides a detailed chronology of events, especially with regard to the WBA’s confrontations with the mighty Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which had extensive mine holdings in the region. He points to intraregional, work circumstance, and ethnic divisions among anthracite coal miners—the latter a demographic factor involving the multiple streams of immigrants who came to work in the mines—that doomed the union, especially during the so-called Long Strike of 1874 to 1875. He faults the union here for not recognizing that the key problem for mine owners was not overproduction, which pressed operators collectively to implement production quotas to prevent ruinous market price competition, leading to retrenchments in employment and labor cost cutting, but rather overinvestment. While coal miners sought to deal with price fluctuations for coal by pushing for union contracts that pegged wages to increases and decreases in company revenues, Aurand leaves open the question of how coal miners could have responded to the conundrum of overcapitalization. After the demise of the WBA, Aurand applies his functional approach when discussing the Molly Maguires, the legendary insurrectionaries of the period. For him, the collapse of the WBA left a vacuum in ways to resolve conflict between mine owners and miners, opening the doors to violent actions.
Reviewers of From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers did not take kindly to Aurand’s social-science slant.2 They took Aurand to task for not proving his case about overinvestment; for weak statistical analysis; for overemphasizing constraints to action and the fault lines of the anthracite coal trade; and for the disappearance of the functional approach in whole stretches of the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with the 1880s and 1890s, when the Knights of Labor had a presence in the region and the United Mine Workers union emerged as a powerful force. In general, his critics found his structural analysis added little to past and then-recent historical studies of the anthracite coal industry and anthracite coal miners. The response to the book may have pushed Aurand in new directions and toward social and cultural history, as is evident in the titles of his later works, for example, Population Change and Social Continuity: Ten Years in a Coal Town (1986) and Coalcracker Culture: Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1836–1935 (2003).
Parts of Aurand’s first book would be superseded by later works; for example, his chapter on the Molly Maguires by Kevin Kenny’s Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998) and his treatment of the 1880s and 1890s by Michael Novak’s The Guns of Lattimer: The True Story of a Massacre and a Trial, August 1897-March 1898 (1978) and Perry Blatz’s, Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875–1925 (1994). Yet a simple browsing through the footnotes and citations of these books and others that have appeared since the publication of From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers reveals how indebted scholars are to his research. It remains a basic resource. Aurand’s attention to given factors has also had an impact. Geology, economic imperatives, work circumstances, and demography are starting points for all recent historical studies of the Pennsylvania anthracite region, if not overtures to functional analysis. Reissuing and facilitating access to From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers is certainly in order and welcome. It also provides an opportunity to honor a scholar who remained steadfast in encouraging appreciation of the significant history of his “place,” the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region, and in chronicling the lives of the anthracite coal miners and their families who worthily shaped that history in the face of numerous odds.
WALTER LICHT is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
1. Biographical information on Harold W. Aurand has been drawn from three newspaper articles: “Historian’s Distinguished Career at PSU”; “Renowned Professor Now Part of PSU History,” Standard Speaker, September 1, 1999; and “Dr. Harold W. Aurand [Obituary],” Standard Speaker, November 24, 2012. Email correspondence with his son, Harold Aurand, Jr. provided additional information.
2. See scholarly journal reviews by Rowland Berthoff, Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography, 96 (April 1972): 261–262 and H. Benjamin Powell, Pennsylvania History, 41 (January 1974): 103–104.