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Susquehanna University Press

     

 

Coalcracker Culture
Work and Values in Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1835-1935
Author: Harold W. Aurand
ISBN: 1 - 57591 - 064 - 0

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.

The prospect of a sudden loss of income encouraged the development of a community-wide support network that was governed by the principle of reciprocity. Focused upon their individual needs, however, they tolerated cheating within the reciprocal relationship. Exploited, they developed a mistrust of others. They internalized numerous allegations of their inferiority while compensating for it by celebrating the overly macho male who never tolerated an insult.

Today that culture is widely celebrated. A number of sites about "da region"-as the anthracite coal fields are fondly called-can be found on the World Wide Web. Local his-torical societies and museums are being formed in unprecedented numbers. Books and poetry expound upon the region and its cul-ture. The celebration, however, seems to be a nostalgic attempt to hold on to what is quickly passing, for the very basis of that culture-deep mining-has ceased to exist for all prac-tical purposes.

Jacket illustration: View of the Loree Breaker. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Bureau of Historical Sites and Museums, Anthracite Heritage Museum, MG 369.