Working to be Poor

cabin good

A short excerpt based on a fascinating report.  Though this deals specifically to miners in the 1890s, much the same was true for any of your ancestors who were laborers.

The 1893-94 biennial report of the Indiana Bureau of Statistics offered a stark portrait of the lives of miners and their families in the state.  The bureau had undertaken a rather comprehensive study of the mining industry.  Surveys were taken at 71 mines throughout the state (and particularly Vigo County).  Both mine owner/operators and the miners were questioned.  The report, which was surprising open-minded for the age, detailed what life was like for a miner and his family.  It showed that they were, indeed, working to be poor.

The report divided miners into four categories, hand pick and machine miners, helpers and loaders.  Despite working a job that provided the fuel for America and featured a workday so hazardous that the threat of injury or death was ongoing, miners in the state averaged only $1.81 per day in wages. The cost of the tools they needed, squibs, gun powder, oil, were deducted from their wages.  After these deductions the “take home pay” of miners was actually $1.39 a day.

Though Indiana law forbade mine companies requiring workers to shop at the company store, there was an element of coercion.  Nearly 20 % of miners said they were “expected” or urged to buy from the company store.  Many miners noticed that those who did frequent the store were employed longer and worked more often.  Operators loved the idea of company stores as, in effect, miners were giving back a chunk of the wages to the company.  Owners said the wages were so low because they were working on a very slim profit margin.  Many were indeed struggling with the bottom line, but that was because they were purposely keeping the price of coal down to better compete and seize a larger market share.  Thus the miners were paying a high price for low wages.

As the report stated, miners were a “class… underpaid… and suffering privations.”  Their average wage was only $287.00 a year.  But, as miners only worked 161 days a year, that $287.00 had to cover 365 days of living.  That came out to .78 cents a day to support their household which was “wholly inadequate for the support of a family.”

Of the 961miners studied, only 271 owned their home, and 101 of them were struggling to make their mortgage payments.  A work-related injury that kept a miner from working could easily find his hard earned home under foreclosure.  So nearly two-thirds of miners rented their homes, at an average of $4.58 a month.  You did not get much house for that.

Typically, miner’s homes were ill-furnished cabins containing only the barest of bare necessities.  Most had rough-sawn bare wood floor (those some others had only a dirt floor.) A few of those rough floors were covered in cheap rag or hemp rugs.  Furnishings were rudimentary, a few wooden chairs, cheap bedsteads or pallets covered with worn linen for sleeping, a small rickety table for eating.

When rent of $54.96 was deducted, most miners were engaged in a Sisyphean struggle just to keep their families from hunger and clothed against the cold.  It was the sort of grinding poverty that taxed the human spirit and made miners fear for their children and their future.