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Watts Museum Opens New Exhibition, “Outside the Mine: Daily Life in Coal Company Camp”, W. Va

Published: December 27, 2013 | Share This

A scrip machine used by the Fordson Coal Company of Kentucky to keep track of amount miners owed the store.

A scrip machine used by the Fordson Coal Company of Kentucky to keep track of amount miners owed the store.
[Click image to enlarge]

Currency issued to coal miners from scrips machines, to be used by miners for goods and services purchased “on credit”.

Currency issued to coal miners from scrips machines, to be used by miners for goods and services purchased “on credit”.
[Click image to enlarge]

A new exhibition at the Watts Museum in West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering explores the lives of miners and their families in Appalachia’s coal towns from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries.

“Outside the Mine: Daily Life in a Coal Company Camp” focuses on social and cultural aspects of the mining industry, including social time and leisure, domestic activities, religion and faith, and commerce and the company store.

“The exhibit illustrates the sense of community and camaraderie that existed in these towns that were self-sustaining and often isolated,” said museum curator Danielle Petra.

Isolated by geography, with limited access to railway systems in remote and rough terrain where mines were often located, coal companies would construct coal company camps for miners and their families.

Smaller “box-type” houses were constructed in the camps for miners and their families. The miners would return a portion of their wages to coal companies as rent.

Coal companies would often construct amenities such as churches, movie theaters, barber shops, social halls and the “company store,” where mining families would obtain goods and services. Company stores were important to the fabric of the coal camps.

“It was the hub of the community where people went to shop as well as socialize,” Petra said. “Although mining operations sustained these towns’ existence, there was more to life in coal camps than laboring underground.”

Children utilizing mining equipment to create makeshift playgrounds; women in the camps joined forces to tackle household chores while keeping one another company, were common images in the camps.

“Outside the Mine” exhibit includes important photos and artifacts which Petra has gathered over the eight month period she spent preparing the exhibit.

Items from the Miners Safety and Health Administration, the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown and the U.S. Library of Congress are on display as part of the exhibit.

Miners’ pay stubs, ledger books from company stores and a rare scrip machine on loan from a collector in Ohio, are among the items presented in “Outside the Mine.”

“A scrip machine would issue a form of currency or payday loan for miners to spend (only) in the store but no where else,” said Petra.

Miners, who were paid based on the weight of coal they produced, could use scrip currency to purchase “on credit” everything from mining equipment and food to household goods and home furnishings from the company store. Store managers used scrip transaction receipts and ledger books to keep track how much the miner owed.

The exhibit also outlines the close knit relationships that existed in coal camps especially when there was a death in the community.

“Death was something families had to face often in the late 19th and early 20th century in coal camps,” Petra said. “They would rally around a family in need and lend a much-needed helping hand.”

Source: (December 26, 2013) Herald-Standard