Help the museum dig into mining history!
Update: The project to transcribe our 1897 mining journal is now complete! Over 50 digital volunteers from 15 different countries contributed to the project, transcribing handwritten notes on over 200 pages. We sincerely appreciate the efforts of everyone who helped transcribe the journal and spread the word about this project. The journal is now available online and will be studied by researchers, students, and the public to better understand mining history.
On September 6, 1897, an employee at an eastern Pennsylvania coal company penned a terse message in the company's daily journal:
"Colliers idle...Labor Day...Few men working...Colliers idle."
For scholars, these nine words provide a vital insight into American history. Why? In 1897, Labor Day was a relatively new holiday. In fact, when the company's employee penned this short missive, it had only been three years since Congress—following the lead of 23 state legislatures, including Pennsylvania in 1889—had officially designated the first Monday of September as Labor Day, a "legal public holiday" for all Americans. Nevertheless, thanks to historical sources like this journal, we can know that Pennsylvania coal miners—many of whom were new immigrants to the United States—had taken Congress's message to heart. They stayed home, and the colliers (a term synonymous with "coal mine") stood idle.
The museum is inviting the public to help us transcribe this handwritten 1897 mining journal, in the hopes that, together, we can uncover even more fascinating insights into the joined histories of labor and business in the United States. Beginning August 25, 2016, the journal will be publicly available through the Smithsonian's Transcription Center. By signing up as a digital volunteer, visitors will be able to browse through all of the journal's more than 400 pages, transcribe any entries that catch their eye, and review entries transcribed by other volunteers. Thanks to volunteers’ efforts, researchers and enthusiasts around the world will soon have the opportunity to discover, explore, and cite this rare historical record.
For Peter Liebhold, curator in the museum's Division of Work and Industry, the transcription project is the natural next step in a more than five-year-long relationship with the 1897 artifact. Although the journal has been a part of the museum's collections since the mid-20th century, it was rediscovered by the division's collections manager, Shari Stout, during a 2011 reorganization of the museum's mining collection. (The reorganization also led to other discoveries, including a series of rare photographs taken inside an 1884 Pennsylvania coal mine.)
Although the journal included very little documentation beyond a small card that read "Mill Creek Coal Company Vulcan and Buck Mt. collieries," its sharp tone (at times bordering on sarcastic) immediately caught curator Liebhold's eye. At the time, Liebhold was furiously making plans for American Enterprise, a permanent exhibition on the history of business in the United States, and the journal presented a rare opportunity to humanize an important but otherwise esoteric topic: changing work patterns and the rise of “management” as a profession in the late 1800s. Thanks in large part to the journal's influence, when the exhibition opened in the summer of 2015, it included a section titled "Workers and Managers," which introduces visitors to the distinct and often opposing worldviews of miners and mine-owners in Pennsylvania coal country.
According to Liebhold, the mining journal is unusually significant because it captures a pivotal period in U.S. labor history. Coal mining was a booming U.S. industry in the late 1800s. Throughout the summer of 1897, the coal fields of Pennsylvania and other states were shaken by waves of protests and strikes, many of them spearheaded by a then-young union, the United Mine Workers of America. The journal captures the day-to-day effects of these strikes, and it also shows how managers and miners responded to one of the darkest moments in U.S. mining history—the "Lattimer massacre."
On September 10, 1897, the sheriff of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and a posse of armed supporters opened fire on a group of striking mine workers. Nineteen miners died; 36 more were wounded. Since the Vulcan and Buck Mountain colliers were close neighbors to Luzerne County, the clerk who filled out the 1897 journal carefully described both the massacre and its fallout, giving readers a firsthand view of what this disturbance felt like to people who lived through it.
Not all of the journal's entries focus on the give-and-take between mine workers and managers. Many simply capture the day-to-day rhythm of life in Pennsylvania coal country: the changing seasons and weather, the breakdown and repair of machines, even the fate of the year's huckleberry harvest. Other events recorded in the journal, Liebhold noted, resist easy classification, such as when a deceased miner was discovered in a well, or when a former employee returned to the mine to show off a diamond he had acquired on an expedition to South Africa. Transcribing these stories will certainly offer new insights into the history of mining in the United States, but Liebhold suspects that's only the tip of the iceberg. "The most exciting use of the journal," said Liebhold, "is something we can't predict; it's probably something we haven't even thought of yet!"
Interested in exploring the journal for yourself? Visit the project at the Transcription Center today, and try your hand as a digital volunteer. In the weeks ahead, the museum will be sharing more mining history stories on our blog, Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter. After the journal's transcription is complete, the museum will hold a Twitter chat with curator Peter Liebhold to answer volunteers’ questions and explore some of the stories they uncovered in the journal.
Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about the complicated history of May Day in the United States.