Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Prior to the establishment of widespread governmental assis­tance programs such as social se­curity and various other forms of social services, the working people of industri­al America devised their own means of survival and support. Drawing on the resources of family members and neigh­bors, ordinary individuals created tight­ly-knit communities in which limited in­comes, food and emotions were shared; cooperation rather than individual com­petition predominated in these societies. This pattern existed wherever industrial workers lived in urban America.

The anthracite mining area of Penn­sylvania contained just such a society prior to World War II. Children assisted parents, mothers and fathers kept tight control over their progeny and neigh­bors could usually be counted on in times of need. Through the process of oral history interviews, much of this cul­ture of sharing can be reconstructed and a clear picture can be developed of the dynamics of family and community among the people of this mining region.

An understanding of this family­-based culture and economy can be gained in the recollections of children who matured in such an environment. The general pattern of their lives was clear. Childhood was followed by an early departure from school and entry into the workplace as soon as possible. Earnings were turned over regularly and routinely to parents, a form of support which continued at least until marriage but often throughout the course of en­tire lifetimes.

Children moved into wage-earning jobs at a feverish pace. Antoinette Watchilla, for example, was raised in a family of five children. Characteristical­ly, by age twelve she entered a silk mill in Nanticoke and brought her younger sisters into the mill as they reached ado­lescence. Her brother had already left school at age eleven to work for a farm­er near Kingston.

There were countless others. Viola Mazza hired out for house work by age twelve, while her sister went to a pants factory to sew. Marie Skovranski never left home; since her mother was a dress­maker, Marie simply stayed home and assisted her. By the time she was fifteen, Sophia Reakes had worked in a dress shop as a dressmaker, in a cigar mill, and in a mental hospital as a cook. Adelle Winarski left school following the sixth grade to seek employment in a silk mill. Many young girls who did manage to finish high school, left the coal regions immediately afterward to obtain housework for wealthier families in the New York City area. Irene Wieczorek claimed that if you were Polish you had such a good reputation as a houseworker that employment came easily. Stacia Tresniowski, who temporarily left Nanticoke for New York in the early 1930s, was able to send sixty percent of her $25 monthly income back to her parents.

Young men, of course, repeated the pattern of their sisters, except that they worked first around the mines in break­ers or as “nippers,” opening doors for loaded coal cars and spraging them when they had to be stopped. Under­ground work, usually as a laborer 10 a contract miner, did not begin much be­fore the age of eighteen. Typical was the case of Steve Stashak, who entered the employ of the mines in Glen Lyon at age sixteen and helped support his family for seven years until his younger brother was old enough to enter the mines and his sister could go to New York co per­form housekeeping.

Often a child’s work efforts were di­rected toward small family business pursuits which were established throughout industrial regions such as the anthracite coal fields. Arlene Golo­bek’s parents opened a small grocery store in Nanticoke hoping that the busi­ness would ultimately enable Mr. Gola­bek to leave the mines. Arlene was kept busy in the enterprise seven days a week cleaning mushrooms and helping in the store. Eleanor Ostrowski left school af­ter the ninth grade and worked in her parents’ store as well.

The fact that familial obligations di­rected wage sharing and entry into work life in the first place was reinforced by the dependence on kin for access to available jobs. This process was especially crucial for those from abroad. For instance, Lillian Niziolek’s father came from Poland to the Susque­hanna Coal Company because a brother already in Nanticoke secured an open­ing for him. Lillian’s father, in turn, brought six cousins and nephews to the same mines. Not infrequently, sons would labor with their fathers, such as was done by Stanley Salva in Glen Ly­on, or women would talk to a “floor la­dy” about work for their sisters in silk mills. When work was scarce, particu­larly during strike periods, workers would move to other regions to live with kin and earn wages, usually returning when work resumed.

While it is clear that families and kin assisted each other, it should not be assumed that this was done in any perfunctory manner. While family tensions existed and obligations gener­ated inevitable pressures, family mem­bers – especially children – felt strong obligations to assist their kin and fre­quently did so wi1h a deep sense of pur­pose. The basis for this attitude seemed to be the widespread assumption on the part of adolescents that because parents worked hard and struggled all their lives, they deserved all the help their progeny could render.

Stanley Salva explained that it was ex­pected that as soon as you were old enough and strong enough you went in­to the mines and earned wages. He em­phasized, “That’s what I wanted.” Helen Klish left school after grade eleven and began working in a Nanticoke restaurant because she used to see her mother worrying about the mortgage or the family home and felt she was “old enough to owe her that much.” As a young girl of twelve, Mary Yukenevich toiled in a tailor shop “because I wanted to help my mother and father.” Antoi­nette Watchilla revealed that she could not concentrate on going to school “when we needed money in the house.” Because she admired her mother for working hard without ever complaining, Antoinette felt compelled to earn wages and turn them over. Virginia Vida and her brothers helped because they “felt sorry” that their parents were forced to work so hard. Helen Hosey crystalized the feeling when she explained:

You took care of one another. You never questioned it. In our family we never expected anything in return. It was the honor that we had. The trust, that’s why we all felt so close to each other. There was no house divided here.

The strong feelings evoked by strug­gling parents on the part of their work­ing-class children led not only to a deep­-seated desire to assist the family, but carried over into a widespread drive to establish families of their own; life was to be carried on within a context of mar­riage and the family. Tied closely to their industrial economy, community, and kin, working-class children saw adulthood in the 1920s and 30s as an ex­tension of their familial and communal culture, not as a departure. Although marriage did represent something of an independent thrust, daughters and sons grew to emulate their parents and main­tained and extended the system of shar­ing and assisting.

Jule Znaniecki admired her mother immensely for raising her, despite the tragedy of losing three children to the flu, and out of respect wanted to raise a family of her own. Stacia Feddock de­tailed how her mother struggled to raise five dollars for a first communion dress and then revealed that her own life would have been “unthinkable” with­out a child. Another woman exclaimed:

That was the social thing to do. You didn’t say you would get married and nor have children. That wasn’t the pat­tern. I’m glad there was a pattern.

Indeed, grandchildren themselves could often represent an additional contribu­tion on the part of children to their ad­mired parents. Marie Skovranski and her husband revealed how her father re­joiced at the birth of her son because the infant replaced, in the grandfather’s eyes, Marie’s brother who had died at age seven.

While marriage was eagerly pursued, children of working-class families con­tinued to care for their parents, especial­ly as they reached old age. After Stacia Feddock’s father suffered a serious stroke, she would sit with him daily and listen to stories about his life in Poland. Even when Virginia Vida reached mid­dle age, she never missed a day that she did not visit her mother. Marie Siegley visited her parents every day until they died. “After they died I don’t even re­member the times,” she said, “it was like a blackout.” Children often confessed to their inability to move from the coal regions as they matured because they felt obligated to remain near their parents. Many took their parents into their own homes or moved in with them to offer care during old age; Vincent Znaniecki’s brother actually built his parents a home. It was not unusual that marriages were postponed past age forty or even fifty so that care could be ex­tended to elderly parents.

Parents knew all along that they would eventually need the material and emotional support of their children, and thus provided both discipline and valua­ble service which would insure that sup­port in subsequent years. Parents were not about to leave the possibility of child assistance to chance or sentiment alone. When the situation called for it, they were not averse to insisting upon child labor and earnings. When Marie Skovranski was in the eighth grade and her brother became ill, her mother asked her to leave school and help care for him. After her father died of a heart attack, Virginia Vida’s mother “made the kids work.” At age sixteen, Virginia went out to do housework and baby sit.

Children, of course, did not always appreciate strict parental discipline or demands, at an early age, to enter the workplace and relinquish wages. Argu­ments occurred frequently and disci­pline was often enforced with a strap. Young men were known to have run away from home because they had to work for their fathers. Attempts to con­trol could even go so far as to regulate dating patterns and influence the choice of a marriage partner. Sophie Reakes described how children in her family had to kiss their parents’ hands and ask for forgiveness before they went to Holy Communion in the Catholic church. Clearly parents felt that the family could not act in concert to meet economic emergencies over a lifetime without a certain degree of discipline.

Still, it would be a mistake to con­clude that reciprocity did not exist in parental-child relationships since disci­pline was not all parents had to give. They also proved indispensable in pro­viding housing, a valuable commodity in coal regions, even after children had been married. Often unable to afford housing of their own, young couples regularly moved in with their parents for several years. Stacia Feddock’s par­ents saved feverishly for a home, and then acquired a second one next door so they would be able to give each of their two daughters a home of her own. One woman reported how she and her hus­band moved in with her parents when­ever he was out of work. Another man revealed how he lived with his mother­-in-law for awhile after marriage and then built a home of his own on a lot he inherited from his mother. Regina Haranzy’s father received a home from his parents which they built on the back of their lot; the parents continued to re­side on the from part of the property. When one miner got sick and could no longer repair his home, he asked his son-in-law to take it from him for one dollar and keep it in repair. While houses were often built very cheaply by family members themselves, the wide­spread sharing of housing resources within family systems underscored the intricate workings of the family econo­my and why it was not easily aban­doned.

Despite a general pattern of sharing responsibilities within these working­-class families, some members exercised more authority than others. Certainly males exerted some authority and disci­pline; unable to derive status from their menial jobs, it might be expected that they would seek status at home. But it is crucial to point out that both their sta­tus and authority at home were usually secondary to the dominance of their wives. Women were simply preeminent at home and assumed a wide range of responsibilities, including management of family finances. In many instances it was coal region housewives who decided to initiate small family businesses or purchase a home. This does not seem surprising since women generally pos­sessed the most accurate knowledge of family financial resources, which were regularly turned over to them by hus­bands and children. As Helen Hosey (and nearly every respondent in this study) explained, “My mother always handled the money; my father never even opened his pay envelope.”

Women took their responsibility seriously and pursued their role aggres­sively. When Sophie Reakes spent one dollar of her earnings on a petticoat be­fore turning her wages over, her mother threatened to throw her out of the home. Women would frequently risk so­cial ostracism and enter local taverns on payday before husbands had an oppor­tunity to drink away modest earnings. While many miners never entered taverns at all, enough did to pose a threat to family harmony and economy. Indeed, one woman recalled hiding wives in her family’s store who feared additional beatings from drunken spouses.

If expectations were high for respec­tive family members to perform pre­scribed roles and resources such as wages and housing had to be shared, a collective approach to life also extended into the larger community of anthracite mining families. Limited economic re­sources and the general lack of interest shown in their condition on the part of local governments and the local elites who controlled their lives forced entire communities to pursue security together. The gathering of food, for ex­ample, was a continuous process which required participation from extended kin and neighbors, as well as from par­ents and children. Men would prepare smoked sausage and women would make sauerkraut, can fruits and vegeta­bles, and store them in cold cellars. Neighbors would even swap food for greater variety. Feathers were peeled from ducks for pillows and blankets.

Everyone picked coal to enhance win­ter supplies, and special attention was always given to neighbors who were un­able to work. Every mining family re­lied on the cooperative spirit of the local storekeeper who allowed them to buy “on the book.” One miner revealed:

The fellow that should have a monu­ment is the small storekeeper; he is the guy that kept you on the book. Other­wise you’d never won a strike here …. When a strike came why he just kept on taking on his book and you didn’t pay him until you started back to work. If he had demanded his money when it was due, you couldn’t have survived.

Often communal sharing took ex­treme forms. Many women would actually raise the children of female neigh­bors who died. Mildred Zejack was raised by an aunt after her mother died in childbirth. Frequently, older brothers and sisters raised younger ones when parents passed away. Viola Mazza’s parents took in a neighbor’s daughter of five when her mother died. Even with ten children of her own, Lillian Nizio­lek’s mother would bring food to neigh­borhood women who gave birth. Sophie Reakes recalled that even though her mother had eleven children she took in another who was orphaned.

During weddings and funerals, large numbers of neighbors would gather to give food and comfort. Chester Brozena revealed that during funerals neighbors would bring hams, care for smaller chil­dren and even take off work to sit in the homes of the bereaved and lend emo­tional support.

On religious holidays, extended kin would gather for dinner and visitations. Christmas celebrations were especially remembered as familial and communal affairs, with traditional customs pre­dominating which often stemmed back to eastern Europe. Some children even recalled directing their religious prayers toward familial and communal goals, such as better homes for their parents and kin. Ironically, it was the father who acted as titular head of the house­hold by passing the sacred wafer (opla­tek in Polish) around the Christmas eve table. While economic realities elevated the internal status of the mother, tradi­tion and the soothing influence of nostalgia served to mute realities be­tween work and life, thus making the world appear as it should during holi­days and not as it was.

Certainly the working-class family and community should not be romanticized. Tensions and rivalries could and did splinter families and neighbors, and cooperation was not achieved without difficulties. Neverthe­less, the overwhelming conclusion which emerged from the recollections presented here was that the families of this mining region, like those of other urban industrial workers, adhered to a persistent pattern of sharing and co­operation which was rigorously en­forced. Parents provided discipline and jobs; children supplemented family in­come and provided care for elderly par­ents. Storekeepers offered credit when times were bad, and neighbors continu­ously assisted each other. While economic conditions could be uncertain and governments and other institutions provided little or no assistance, the family and community remained stable forms of support.


This article was developed from inter­views done under a grant to explore the impact of industrialization in three com­munities given by the Pennsylvania Hu­manities Council to the PHMC, for which Dr. Bodnar then served as chief of the division of history. Articles based on the interviews completed in the other two towns covered in that study will be featured in future issues of PH.


John E. Bodnar is presently at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, as an associate professor of history. A doc­toral graduate of the University of Con­necticut, he has recently published two books, Workers’ World: Kinship, Community and Protest in Industrial America and Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians and Poles in Pittsburgh (with Roger Simon and Michael Weber).