Coal mining has always been a dangerous occupation. Rather than rewarding the men and boys who risked their lives so that others could have heat in abundance, mining companies often regarded the miners as easily replaceable. Injuries and fatalities on the job were common, as were mining-related illnesses like Black Lung and various cancers. In circumstances like these, if a man was dead or ill often another member of the household would immediately replace him so that the family would not be kicked out of their home.
Miners often lived in the company houses. Mining operations would set up camp and create whole towns around the mines, with homes, schools, and stores all owned by the mining company in charge.
Sometimes the workers weren’t even paid in money, instead given paper coupon books or metal “scrip” tokens which could only be used at the company store. Cash for rent was often not needed in these camps since rent was automatically deducted from the earnings before any scrip or currency was given over. This created a host of problems such as inflated costs at the company store, immediate eviction upon inability to work, and a general sense of not being able to organize or unionize since everything was basically company property.
The Coal Wars highlighted the ill treatment of coal miners in a very big way, getting national publicity and creating a culture of resistance against the abuses.
It was not an easy life at all. Yet, the miners persisted for their families. In many rural areas, there were no other jobs to be had and they did what they had to in order to make ends meet. Despite cases of extreme poverty, many coal miners’ homes were still neatly put together. They may not have had many belongings, but they did the best with what they had.
The company houses were often built close together and usually not of as good of quality as homes built for the real estate market. However, this did not stop industrious coal miners’ wives from planting flowers, putting up wallpaper, or hanging some pretty curtains. For most mining families the facilities were out of doors and they took washtub baths.
The homes often only had a few rooms each and children usually shared rooms and more commonly even the beds were shared. It was not unusual for the family to have two double beds and a drawer lined with blankets or a trundle bed for the littlest ones in the family.
As with many jobs of the era, the foreman or supervisors often got the bigger homes, usually of nicer build, and of course they earned more money with which to furnish them.
Today coal makes up only 30% of the energy use in the U.S. and many coal mines are at the end of their usability. But back in the old days, mining was the hard scrabble way to earn a living.