Mining lamps illuminate Smithsonian history

As a collection manager at the National Museum of American History, I often have access to things no one else gets to see, including the mining collection, one of the oldest at the Smithsonian. Recently, I worked with a team to inventory thousands of objects in the museum’s Division of Work and Industry. In the process, I cataloged hundreds of mining lamps.

While searching old records for the catalog number for some of these lamps, the name Dewey kept coming up. It turned out that Frederic P. Dewey was the name of the original curator of the Smithsonian’s mining and mineral collections. In 1884, he arranged to have the interior of a Pennsylvania coal mine photographed, an amazing feat for the time. I located, in this museum’s library, the original paper that Dewey published about the photo shoot, and about how they managed to light the mine. I also found a large publication about the entire mining and mineral collection which Dewey published in 1891; this is helping to unlock secrets to the Smithsonian’s important early mining collections.

1st photo.dynamo
Photography underground is impossible without artificial light. This picture shows the dynamo, or electric generator, built to illuminate the underground works of the Shenandoah Colliery. Note that the men running the plant are wearing miner’s lamps with an open flame, often called teapot lamps. Lamps like these were collected for the museum.

Armed with the catalog numbers listed in the 1891 publication, we contacted the Smithsonian’s photo services unit, which is responsible for cataloging all the images taken by its photographers. It turned out that the original glass plate negatives were in cold storage—just where they should have been—only no one knew how important they were, or exactly what the images were until that moment. I learned that the Smithsonian hired a photographer from the Pottsville area of Pennsylvania, George Bretz, to document the Kohinoor Mine at the Shenandoah Colliery for the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans.

Bretz’s innovative techniques led him to a career photographing miners and miners’ lives. Later in life, Bretz’s studio burned and his copy of the negatives from the underground mine shoot were destroyed. The ones at the Smithsonian are the only ones left.

These photographs are important because it was one of the earliest photo shoots underground, and it was one of the earliest photographic depictions of coal mining. We are delighted to have re-discovered such an important part of our collections.

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Photo of two miners working in the Kohinoor mine.

In Dewey’s paper, “Photographing the Interior of a Coal-Mine,” he points out that many miners had never truly seen their work place until the day the mine was lit: “Many old miners were attracted to the spot, and were, if possible more surprised and interested in the sight than the strangers present. Although most of them had spent the greater part of their lives in coal-mines, yet they had never before seen more than a few square feet of the coal at any one time.”

Fredric P. Dewey was responsible for instigating the collection of many mine-related objects. Among those are some of the earliest mining lamps in the museum's collection. As part of the inventory, we are locating those early lamps and re-uniting this early collection.

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Mining lamp, known as a boss lamp.

4th photo.miners
Miners posing underground in the Kohinoor mine. The time for the photo exposures often took ten minutes, which meant the miners you see posing in the photos had to hold that position for the length of the exposure.

Examine more of George Bretz’s photo collection as part of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Digtital Collections.

Shari A. Stout is Collections Manager of the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.