What was the life of a miner in the 19th century like?

Life in the gold fields exposed the miner to loneliness and homesickness, isolation and physical danger, poor nutrition and disease, and even death. Above all, mining was hard work. Fortune could be around the corner, but so could failure. Candles lit the mines of Summit County in the late 19th century.

The candles, nine inches long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter, burned slowly, producing little smoke. Made of hard tallow, they held their shape in the high humidity and high temperatures of a mine. Often the men had to buy the candles for five cents each. One of the three candles needed for a ten-hour shift might be glued to the brim of the hat with clay.

If a miner did not carry a candle in his hat, he could use a wrought iron candle holder embedded in a rock wall or timber. Men bought candleholders from a merchant or ordered them from a catalogue. In some cases, the blacksmith at the mine would make the candleholders 15 to 20 centimetres long. Between a loop at one end and a long point at the other, a second loop held a candle.

Some candle holders had a hook at the top so that they could be hung from a timber. The birth of modern workwear has as much to do with Levi Strauss as it does with the people who wore his product in strenuous and often life-threatening situations. Early blue jeans wearers lived almost unbearable lives in pursuit of a dream. A dream that often killed or shattered them and was usually only attainable by the savviest entrepreneurs who had never wielded a pickaxe or lit a fuse.

Furniture was scarce in the mid-19th century because low wages made it difficult to afford more than the basics. Houses, like the one in 1840, often suffered from damp in bad weather, due to poor construction, and sometimes even puddles formed on the stone floor. Cooking was done on an open hearth and water was not always available in the row. Sometimes it was necessary to travel long distances to find water for cooking and cleaning.

In the late 19th century, mining was hard physical work. Miners lay on their backs and used a pickaxe to extract the coal. Under Pennsylvania state law, the company operating the mine is required to provide the miner with the necessary props, but the miner must place them in places designated by the mine manager. Miners in remote coal camps often relied on the company shop, a shop that miners had to use because they were often only paid with company vouchers or coal vouchers, redeemable at the shop, which often charged higher prices than other shops.

David Gerula
David Gerula

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