Shocking, but fake: Accident photos teach about safety
Intern Lindsay Keating shares an oddly interesting find from the museum's Archive Center.
I was flipping through photo album after photo album in the Archive Center's Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company Collection, when this photo stopped me in my tracks:
I was searching for images of coal mining equipment for the American Enterprise exhibition and wasn't expecting to find this type of photograph. I read the caption and thought, "Wait, this can't be true! No—photographers couldn't have had their cameras set up in preparation to photograph the deaths of miners." Upon searching the Archives Center finding aid, I saw that they were labeled as "Safety Photos." So, why were these photos being taken?
I asked Peter Liebhold, Curator of Work and Industry, about them. "The injury/death photos are staged reconstructions of actual accidents," he said. These reenactments were taken for insurance, legal, and safety purposes.
Mining is a dangerous occupation and serious accidents were fairly common in the early 19th century. In his book, Extracting Appalachia: Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910-1945, Geoffrey L. Buckley states that, "Economic growth, increased competition, and advanced technology have all been blamed for the high accident and fatality rates," as well as resistant coal operators, and, "negligence on the part of miners in general and an inexperience and poorly trained immigrant workforce."
In response to so many injuries and fatalities in coal mines, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was created in 1910. Its mission was to address safety issues in the mines. It was the Bureau that convinced companies to take safety more seriously—explaining that it would be in their best interest, as companies suffered financially when their mines were destroyed.
During the late 19th century, Consolidation Coal was known as one of the safest mining companies. They addressed safety in a variety of ways: they built hospitals, enacted checking systems to keep track of the miner’s location inside the mine, introduced safety bulletin boards, provided first aid classes for any worker that wanted to learn, and some of their mines had medical teams and ambulances. They even had popular annual contests where First Aid Teams would compete for prizes.
Consolidation Coal took on safety by publishing these accident reenactment photos in Consolidation Coal Company Mutual Monthly Magazine. The images were often used in the regular column called "Department of Safety," which featured stories about mining injuries and fatalities. The company took photos of miners operating equipment both safely and unsafely as a way to train their employees. These photos were especially helpful to new immigrants who had not learned the language.
I was immediately struck by the shocking nature of these photographs. They stick out from the rest of the collection which depicts the work and home life of mining communities. These staged photos are valuable as they give insight into the real danger that miners faced, as well as document a period when mining companies started to address safety.
In order to facilitate researcher use, the Archives center will process incoming collections by describing and arranging them. The Archives Center will begin processing the Pittsburgh Consolidation Coal Company Collection in September.
Lindsay Keating is an Archives Center Intern at the National Museum of American History. She is providing research assistance on the upcoming American Enterprise Exhibit and creating metadata for Archives Center materials. She is a Library and Information Science Graduate Student at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.