Coal miners at work in the 19th century


Coal helped to fuel the massive expansion and intensification of industrial production in the United States in the second half of the 19th century. Although the emerging industrial economy radically transformed the nature of work and reduced the demand for the specialized labor of artisans, craftsworkers, and practitioners of skilled trades, many industries still relied heavily on workers with unique abilities.

The coal industry could not simply introduce inexperienced and unskilled workers into the mines. The specialized craft of coal mining is one example of work in which the industrial economy depended on the skills of workers. Historians have learned that skilled workers enjoyed a measure of control over the workplace.


"To dislodge and break the coal from its bed requires considerable skill.  A sharp drill is used, by means of which openings are made in the seam..."

"...and when these are filled with gunpowder, tamped, and exploded, large fragments are dislodged, which are placed in the cars..."

"The regular miner does not handle the coal.  Such work is beneath his dignity--he leaves it to an inferior workman, who is called a laborer.  As soon as the miner has dislodged as much coal as the laborers can clear away, he is at liberty to stop work for the day."

This quote tells us that the coal miners retained an artisan-like status that allowed them to determine the pace and output of their work. The new industrial worker had lost much of this autonomy.

Laborers loading the cars

Children also worked in the mines, as they did in many of the factories which the coal powered.

Watch boy

"The atmosphere of the mine is very disagreeable to anyone unaccustomed to it, and sometimes in coal mines of bituminous character an explosive gas, called fire-damp, issues out of fissures, and renders working in the galleries very dangerous."