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.

Many Pennsylvanians have long forgotten one of the state’s major claims to national prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-the anthra­cite coal industry. In those years, clean-burning anthracite heated more homes in the northeastern United States than any other fuel, and a 1,700 square-mile area in northeast Pennsyl­vania produced almost all of the nation’s supply.

From our late twentieth-century perspective, one of the most striking facets of the industry was its employ­ment of boys as approximately one­-sixth of its work force. In 1885, the Pennsylvania General Assembly made it illegal to employ boys under four­teen inside any mine and proscribed employment in surface jobs for those under twelve. The legislature raised these limits to sixteen and fourteen respectively in 1903. but these laws had little effect. The boys’ parents, eager to increase their meager family incomes, often filed false affidavits with the local magistrate, who gener­ally displayed more interest in the twenty-five cent fee each document brought him than in enforcing the law. Anthracite operators, including in­dustrial giants like the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, realized they could pay the boys very low wages – usually well under a dollar a day in the early 1900s – and gladly acquiesced in the entire process.

While boys worked in a number of jobs both above and below ground, most of the youngest boys separated slate from the coal in the mammoth industrial buildings called breakers, the deserted hulks of which still dot the landscape of northeast Pennsylvania. Here the coal was cleaned and sized before its shipment to the consumer.

According to several miners’ recol­lections, peer pressure played as large a part as the family’s financial need in a boy’s decision to go to work. An­drew Toth remembers that his father made good money in the mines around the turn of the century, and bis parents did not press him to get a job. However, when he was nine years old some of his friends quit school and went to work as slate pickers. In spite of being rather afraid, Toth joined them one day and went to the breaker after his father had left for work. The boys had no trouble persuading the foreman to hire Toth, and with that step Andrew embarked on a career of over fifty years as a mineworker. Stan­ley Guntack recalls going to work on the breaker at age twelve; by that time all of his friends were working and telling him he was “a big boy” and should get a job and help his family.

One miner remembers how easily he evaded the law. Francis Mack went to the breaker to get a job and add to the family income at age eight, shortly after the epic anthracite strike of l 902. The boss asked him his age. but when Francis replied “fourteen,” the boss told him to get an official paper certi­fying it. Francis then went to the local “squire” (magistrate) who gladly gave him the necessary papers upon pay­ment of the required fee. Later, at age eleven Mack took a job inside the mines after going through a similar process to “prove” he was sixteen years old – the minimum legal age for inside work.

After the coal was hoisted out of the mines it was dumped into the top of the breaker. where it was broken by large rollers into convenient sizes for home use and cleaned by being washed and rolled around revolving screens. From there the coal ran down past the boys. who picked out and separated the slate and other refuse from the coal. Generally they would sit on boards placed across several chutes down which the coal would run. with several boys along each chute. Each boy was responsible for catching the slate the fellow above him missed. The boys usually dangled their boots into the chute to slow the now of coal, ex­cept in those breakers where the boys were positioned beside the chutes and had to rely solely on the quickness of their hands.

The whirring machine1y and cas­cading coal made the breaker a danger­ous place; and with the ten-hour day and six-day week common for much of this period, picking slate was hard labor, especially for boys often as young as nine or ten. In many breakers the boys were forbidden to wear gloves, because management believed that gloves made it difficult for them to pick out small pieces of slate. Con­sequently, the “greenhorn” on the breaker suffered from “red tops”­ – fingers lacerated by the sharp slate and anthracite. This and many other hardships of the breaker boy’s work are poignantly captured in a poem collected by the Works Progress Ad­ministration’s Writers’ Project – “Over the Coals” by James S. Boyle (1868-1925) of Tresckow.

Msgr. Joseph Miliauskas remembers his first days on the breaker soon after he and his mother came to the New World from Lithuania to join his father who was already working in the mines at Dunmore. His parents did not tell him to go to work, but Joseph went co the breaker anyway. During his second day he asked the breaker boss for permission to go home since his fingers were badly cut by the cas­cading anthracite and slate. The boss refused and smacked him on the back with the broomstick he carried for disciplinary purposes. At lunchtime he went home and told his mother he wanted to quit, but his mother told him he had taken the job and he would have to stick with it. He re­turned the next day, and soon his fingers hardened.

Thousands of other boys had similar experiences, and they not only persevered, but even found ways to enjoy themselves during idle moments. Often some breaker machinery would need repair during the day and the boss would stop work for a short period of time. Miliauskas fondly remembers the many pranks the boys played on one another in these mo­ments. sometimes including a perilous game of tag all around and inside the breaker. The poet James Boyle’s engaging verse, “Piece-Time on the Breaker,” provides keen insight into this side of the breaker boys’ working lives.

How did the boys react to their position at the very base of anthra­cite’s industrial pyramid? One long­time mineworker recalls how the presi­dent of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, W. H. Trues­dale, would come out to northeast Pennsylvania from time to time in his personal railroad car to visit the mines. This was a very special occasion. As soon as one of the boys saw Trues­dale’s car approaching, the boss closed down the breaker and the slate pickers ran to welcome rum. He and his fellow executives would leave their train and throw handfuls of change in to the crowd of boys. When recalling this story. the old mineworker said wistfully, “They were wonderful. It was wonderful working for them [sic] class of people.”

Not all recollections paint so placid a picture of relations between the boys and their bosses. An interviewer for the Writers’ Project heard the follow­ing story in the late 1930s when he interviewed an old miner concerning his boyhood. The miner began work at the age or ten picking slate at a breaker near Moosic. He and some fifty other boys were under the thumb of a peg­-legged breaker boss named Bill. Des­pite his handicap, Bill moved about the breaker with surprising agility to torment any inattentive slate picker.

His methods were cruel and unique. He would raise that wooden stump and give each boy a prod in the back. or use it as a club to inflict punishment on little backs already aching from the constant bending of the body above the shutes [sic] of coal. Or, he would come up behind a boy and take him by both ears and lift him a foot or two above his seat.

One day in July, the boys met after work at the local swimming hole. They had had enough of Bill’s brutality and resolved that when the colliery whistle blew the next morning, they would not be at their accustomed posts in the breaker, but would come to the pond instead. All the boys except a few “scabs” carried out the plan, making it impossible for the breaker to start. Since no coal could be shipped until the breaker started, the superintendent and the outside foreman soon became as anxious to find the boys as Bill. Dis­covering, the plan from the few boys who had come to work, the superin­tendent, the foreman and Bill came to the swimming hole and, standing on a ledge overhanging the pond, exhorted the boys to come to work. At that moment, two boys crept from the bushes, pushed Bill into the water, and jumped in after him. The other boys joined them in alternately pulling Bill under and splashing water in his face.

It was fifteen minutes before the two bosses on shore could man­age to drag poor Bill from the pool dripping and half dead. The boys took up a position on the other side of the pool from the enemy. Negotiations were carried on by shouting back and forth. It developed that the only con­dition upon which the boys would return to work was the substitution of another breaker boss for Bill. Needless to say, the boys won the day and Bill was given a different job from that of breaker boss.

Such strikes by breaker boys were not uncommon. In the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission hearings of 1902-1903, foremen and superinten­dents of many companies often com­plained about insubordinate boys. At the Wyoming Coal and Land Com­pany’s colliery early in 1903, the boys struck for a day when management de­layed the annual sleighride. More im­portantly, boys all over the anthracite region joined the United Mine Workers, paying reduced dues. They formed junior locals and elected their own officers under adult supervision. The boys’ militance usually matched or ex­ceeded that of their elders. Older boys who worked inside the mines driving mules or “running” mine cars to the miners often initiated wildcat strikes when one of their fellows was fired, many times for refusing to deliver cars to a non-union miner. In such in­stances, it was generally the miners who would try to persuade the boys to return to work. During the 1902 strike, some of the boys, attending school because the strike closed down the mines, walked out of classes when they found the children of “scabs” among their classmates.

Due to such youthful militance and increasing public criticism of corporate child labor practices, many coal com­panies changed their stance and cur­tailed their long time opposition to ef­fective reform. In 1909, the Pennsyl­vania legislature required that the generally abused process of parents swearing to their child’s age before the magistrate be replaced by employment certificates issued by school authori­ties. To obtain such a certificate. the applicant had to supply legal proof of age – such as a birth certificate, a baptismal record or a passport. An error made in drafting the law lowered the age for inside employment in anthra­cite to fourteen, but the legislature re­turned that limit to sixteen in 1911. The legislature tightened the process further in 1915, mandating that boys between fourteen and sixteen com­plete sixth grade before leaving school for work. Once they began work, they were required to attend night school eight hours each week until they turned sixteen.

Enforced haphazardly, this law was no panacea, and many reformers con­tinued their struggle to strengthen the laws and raise the age limits. Still, the 1915 act heralded the beginning of the end for the exploitation of the very young at the breaker. For their part, those breaker boys of the 1890s and early 1900s would never forget the les­sons they had learned on the breaker.

As they became full-fledged miners in later years, these lessons made them and their union all the more deter­mined to reap their fair share from the subterranean harvest of anthracite.


The Pennsylvania Historical and Mu­seum Commission has two excellent sources with which to study the anthracite “breaker boys” and their industry: a collection of oral history interviews of mineworkers from the Scranton area and the records of the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project, which did a great deal of field research on the anthracite region in the late 1930s. These materials reveal much about the work experience of these all-too-youthful pro­letarians.


Perry K. Blatz, a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, is currently preparing his dissertation on the working lives of anthracite mineworkers in the non-union and union eras, 1887-1926.