Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Six Cents an Hour

February 13th, 2009 · 2 Comments

childminerThe main character in my (*knock on wood*) next book began life as a child coal miner, circa 1905. So I’ve recently taken a keen interest in accounts of what it was like to toil in the pits back then, especially for workers well shy of their tenth birthdays.

You will be completely unsurprised to learn that the work was significantly less-than-pleasant. A brief excerpt from John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of Children, a classic piece of Upton Sinclair-style muckraking:

Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men. When a boy has been working for some time and begins to get round-shouldered, his fellows say that “He’s got his boy to carry round wherever he goes.”

The coal is hard, and accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust fill the breakers and are inhaled by the boys, laying the foundations for asthma and miners’ consumption.

The Department of Labor didn’t really get hip to the problem ’til the Harding Administration. And in the pits of Kyrgyzstan, the practice lingers.

(Photo from the essential Old Picture of the Day.)

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • growler

    If you can make it to Scranton, PA, they have a coal mine museum, and you can go down into what used to be a working mine. It’s quite interesting, and the experience would serve your book well.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @growler: Many thanks for the helpful tip. I’ll confess, I’m one of those mopes who’s heard of this museum via the American version of The Office. The coal elevator is said to be quite spectacular.

    I visited the Krakow Salt Mines once. Wish I’d known the four-hour tour would be Polish-only before I made the subterranean descent.

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