Roberts, Peter

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Peter Roberts

Excerpt from "The Boys in the Breakers," a chapter in Anthracite Coal Communities
Originally published in 1904; available at (Web site)

"No industry in the State is so demoralizing and injurious to boys as the anthracite coal industry."

In the early twentieth century, there were few laws to protect children laborers in America. Child workers could be found in every industry imaginable, from agriculture to fabric mills, canneries to glass factories. Throughout the nation, young children were forced to sacrifice their childhoods in order to help put food on the table and a couple extra dollars in the family's change jar.

Most of the poorest families were immigrants. They came to America speaking little, if any, English, and understanding even less. Their desperate circumstances allowed dishonest managers and factory owners to exploit (take advantage of) them by paying adult laborers such low wages that families came to rely on their children to help supplement their income. Yet the income brought in by child laborers was very low; in most cases, the toll that working took on a child's health and well-being was far greater than the few dollars brought in.

The life of any child laborer was one of hardship. Forced to work, sometimes at the tender age of four or five years, these children never knew the simple joys of childhood. Sleeping in late, playing in the sunshine—such activities were not enjoyed by poor children in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. And no child's life was more dismal than that of a breaker boy. Breaker boys worked in a breaker, a large factory where coal was separated from debris, rock, and slate (a flat rock that splits into sharp pieces); cleaned; and processed for sale.

Anthracite coal mining was a major industry in Pennsylvania. Anthracite is a hard form of coal that burns cleanly. In 1902, the mining region covered 488 square miles (785 square kilometers) of mountain land. More than 53.5 million tons (over 48.5 million metric tons) of coal had been mined there the previous year. Mining was dangerous, dirty, and difficult work. Most miners were Irish or from other immigrant groups.

What Did Child Laborers Do?


With the number of factories increasing throughout the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, companies needed to find cheap labor to perform the work. The labor need not be skilled; more important was an employee's ability to follow directions and obey the rules. Children worked in factories that manufactured products of all kinds, from boxes to glass. During busy times (such as around Christmas), young children were forced to work shifts as long as fifteen hours, often on their feet without a break. Most of these children were in their teens, although workers in candy factories were often as young as ten.


Children as young as five were expected to work in agriculture, usually picking or hauling berries. During the first decade of the 1900s, up to fifteen hundred children were employed to harvest one berry crop. The overseer of the field commonly charged the children $2 for an 8-cent bus ticket from their homes to the fields. Because most of these small immigrant children did not speak English, they did not know their boss was cheating them, just as they did not know he would regularly underpay them for their work. Children working the fields missed four to five weeks of school every berry-picking season.


The tobacco industry was one of the largest employers of child labor in the Progressive Era. According to the book Children in Bondage, the U.S. population increased 50 percent from 1880 to 1900, but the population of boys ages ten to fifteen years working in the tobacco industry increased 100 percent, while girls of the same age increased 150 percent for the same time period. In 1901, twelve thousand children were working in the industry, either picking the fields or rolling cigars in factories and tenement shops (illegal shops set up in rundown tenement homes). Children worked in damp conditions, hunched over tables, and were paid 8 to 10 cents for every 100 cigars they rolled.


Children as young as four years worked in shrimp and seafood canneries. The work was drudgery; workers had to pick the shrimp out of its shells for ten to twelve hours a day. A toxic chemical the shrimp released ate through the skin of their hands as well as the leather of their shoes. Oyster shucking was just as repetitive a task. Most of these young workers came from Maryland and Delaware.

Cotton mills:

More children worked in the cotton mills (mostly in the South) than in any other industry in America. Conditions within the mills were unbearable. Dust, poor ventilation (air circulation) and light, and airborne lint (tiny cotton fibers) made breathing and seeing difficult. Children as young as twelve (though often, they were younger than the law permitted because no proof of age was required) awakened at 4:30 each morning and worked a twelve-hour shift. It was not uncommon for these young laborers to fall asleep at their loom at lunchtime, their unchewed food still in their mouths.

On the streets:

Children worked many jobs on the streets of America's growing cities. Boys as young as eight years worked as newsies, or boys who sold newspapers. A 1905 analysis in New York showed that these eight-year-olds averaged forty cents for every three hours worked. The older teens earned even less: thirty-five cents for every three-and-one-half hours worked. These children roamed the streets and alleys in search of buyers. Those who dared venture into saloons and hotels made more money, but they risked their lives doing so. In those days, children were considered property, not individuals. They did not belong on the streets and in public places, and if caught, their fate lay in the hands of those who caught them. Saloons and hotels were especially dangerous because they were often the scenes of violence. The other popular "street trade" was that of shoe shining, also called "bootblacking." These workers made anywhere from $2.50 to $6 every week.

Garment industry:

Although the garment industry forbid anyone under the age of fourteen to work in the factories (though this law was commonly ignored), children of any age could perform the work in their homes. Families often took home "piece work" (small pieces of embroidering or sewing) to complete at night in their tenements. There, even the youngest children contributed to the work. A 1908 magazine article reported on a two-and-a-half-year-old girl: too young to go to school or the factory, the girl was expected to stay up late every night to help sew.

Mining towns were little more than crude houses built along a dirt road. The families who lived there were traditionally large. Mining salaries were among the lowest of any industry, and boys as young as eight or nine were forced to work the mines with their fathers. While the adult men worked down in the mines, the boys labored in the breaker. Most miners began their careers as breaker boys. As they aged, they left the breaker for the mines. Years of toil in harsh conditions eventually sent the men back to the breaker, where the work was tedious but not as life-threatening. This pattern made for a common saying among the coal miners: Once a man, twice a boy.

Things to remember while reading the
excerpt from "The Boys in the Breakers":

  • The average age at death for an anthracite coal miner was 32.13 years. Insurance companies refused to cover them because their jobs were so dangerous.
  • The fingers of breaker boys were often bloody, the flesh shredded, from spending long hours picking out sharp-edged slate from a moving conveyer belt. This condition was called red top.
  • Between 1870 and 1900, a miner or laborer in the mines was killed every three days.
  • Coal dust in the breaker was so thick that the breaker boys had to be taken to town to see the doctor every couple months to have their ears cleaned out.
  • Approximately one-fourth of all mine employees were boys.
  • Peter Roberts, the author of the excerpt, was an immigrant minister who had received his doctorate degree from Yale University in 1886. His motivation for writing about the Breaker Boys was nothing more than the horrifying devastation he witnessed resulting from the anthracite coal mining strikes of 1900 and 1902.
Age Total number of children Total numberof children laborers % of Children who work
Both Sexes
Total 9,613,252 1,750,178 18.2
Total 4,852,427 1,264,411 26.1
Total 4,760,825 485,767 10.2

Excerpt from "The Boys in the Breakers"

In the breakers of the anthracite coal industry there are nearly 18,000 persons employed as slate pickers. The majority of these are boys from the ages of 10 to 14 years. In an investigation conducted in an area where 4,131 persons wholly dependent on the mines lived, we found 64 children employed in and around the mines not 14 years of age. There were 24 boys employed in breakers before they were 12 years of age. In other sections of the coal fields the evil of employing children under age in breakers and mines is worse than in our limited area. But if the proportion above mentioned prevails in these coal fields, there are employed in the breakers about 2,400 boys under 12 years of age, and nearly 6,400 boys under 14 years of age working in and around the mines. The tabulated report of superintendents of public schools in Lackawanna [County, Pennsylvania] … shows how prevalent the evil of child labor is. Improved machinery for cleaning coal has displaced many boys, and it is hoped that a still further improvement and utilization of such machinery will render unnecessary the labor of boys hardly in their teens in these breakers. No industry demands the service of boys whose bone and muscle are not hardened and whose brain has not been developed for continuous and effective thinking. Muscle without intelligence is annually depreciating, being displaced by machinery which does nearly all the rough work. To stunt the body and dull the brains of boys in breakers is to rob them of the mental equipment which is essential to enhance their social worth and enable them to adjust themselves to the requirements of modern life.

The laws of our State relative to child labor are an intricate mass of confusing statutes, which well illustrate the legislative jobbery of our representatives, who disregard both science and history in their eagerness to do something whereby their political prospects may be enhanced. The law requires every employer to keep a register of all boys employed under 16 years of age which may be seen by the inspectors. No employer does it. Certificates from the parents or guardians of the child, stating [the child's] age, are required before the child is employed. Employers secure these but they are not reliable. The employer is protected, the child sacrificed, and a premium is put on perjury.

No industry in the State is so demoralizing and injurious to boys as the anthracite coal industry. For the last half a century these breakers have been filled with boys who should have been in the public schools. They were put to work before they acquired the three "most essential parts of literary education, to read, write and account," and failing to acquire these to the degree in which it is necessary in order to derive pleasure and utility from them in daily life, they grow up in illiteracy, and by the time they are young men many of them cannot read or write their mother tongue. If society in anthracite communities is to be safeguarded against injuries which can be avoided only by increased intelligence, greater attention must be given to the public education of the children.

Necessity often accounts for the presence of boys in the breakers or mines. Many of the advocates of reform lose sight of this. There are many widows and poor families in these coal fields that need the wages earned by these children, and it would be well for kind-hearted people, who consider only the general desirability of fuller education of these boys, to remember this. On the other hand there are many parents who exploit their children. Of the 64 children employed as above referred to, 35 of the parents owned their own homes. Of the nationalities represented the Sclavs were in the lead, but the English, Irish and Welsh followed closely, while 12 of the parents were native born. These parents do not see that a liberal education to the boys is a better investment than to build a house. Solon made a law which acquitted children from maintaining their parents in old age who had neglected to instruct them in some profitable trade or business. Some such law is necessary to-day in anthracite communities to force parents, financially able, to keep their children in school until they graduate. …

The breaker, where most boys of mine employees begin their life as wage earners, is not favorable to the intellectual development of the lad, however bright his parts may be. Over the chute where the coal passes he stoops and with nimble fingers picks out the impurities. In breakers, where water is not used to wash the coal, the air is laden with coal dust; in winter the little fingers get cold and chap, and at all times when the machinery is in motion the noise from revolving wheels, crushers, screens and the rushing coal is deafening. In such an environment there is nothing to quicken the talent or develop the aesthetic sense of a boy. All is depressing and the wonder is that so many boys who began life under such conditions have been able to rise to prominence in the various spheres of life.

The boy learns many things in the breakers and in the mines. The hard conditions do not dampen the "ardor" and crush the spirits of the average lad. Most of them are bright, cheerful and full of tricks. They have a good appetite and with dirty hands the contents of the dinner-pail generally disappears. They have their "spats" and fights, and woe betide the man who injures one of them. They are full of fun and frolic, but their curiosity sometimes leads them to injury and death. Many of them fall into the machinery and are "mangled," or down the chutes and are smothered. Of all deaths in this risky business the death of one of these boys is the saddest. To witness a funeral procession of a boy hardly in his teens and the cortege made up of his companions in the breaker, is a sight sad enough to melt a heart of stone, and every humane soul asks: "Is this sacrifice of youth necessary for the prosperity of the mining industry?"

There are three things which boys learn in the breakers; they are chewing and smoking tobacco and swearing. Some indeed have learned these before they begin to work in the breaker. Old Abijah Smith [the man who introduced anthracite coal to the United States] said, in his reminiscences of the early days of anthracite mining, that no youth would think of using tobacco before he was 18 years of age. Times have changed in the Wyoming Valley and many lads now contract the habit before they are in their teens, while boys playing on the streets use profane language which horrifies the morally sensitive. Sclav boys when irritated swear shamelessly and afford considerable mirth to their seniors. Many boys trained in a religious home resist the temptations to obscenity and vicious practices so common in and around the mines, but it requires unusually strong moral qualities to develop moral character under conditions so unfavorable.

One of the greatest enemies of these boys is the cigarette. In a mining town where this curse of boyhood was sold in three stores, the consumption was 1,200 boxes or 12,000 cigarettes a month. Miners who smoke use the pipe or a cigar, so that these cigarettes were sold to boys from 8 to 16 years. There were 480 youths of that age in the borough, so that the consumption per capita was 25 cigarettes, providing all of them smoked. If half the youths—many novices and some veterans —only indulged[,] the per capita consumption per month was double. This evil prevails extensively in mining towns. One of our public school principals was so convinced of the prevalence of the habit among his scholars, that he went to the stores selling cigarettes and asked the traders not to cut the boxes, for many tots came to buy two cigarettes for a penny. The practice of cutting the boxes still goes on. Careful observation of the physical, mental and moral injury wrought by this habit upon boyhood ought to move every community to wage a war of extermination upon this foe which destroys so many boys. Anti-tobacco leagues are sadly needed here. But what hope is there of reforming the boys when the fathers are so addicted to the habit? A superintendent says: "Only one of our teachers uses tobacco; nearly all of the men in our town do use it, ministers, lawyers, doctors, Sabbath school superintendents, etc. Many of these men stand high in the community. … What chance has a poor female teacher that is not considered worth more than $28 per month with her children, who can go out and earn more picking slate than she?"

There are many other practices among these boys which sap their physical and moral powers. In Lackawanna county a practice known as the "knock down" prevails among the boys. They take regularly from their pay a certain amount before they give their wages to their parents. Some of the coal companies afford the boys an opportunity for this practice, by not issuing a statement of the wages earned by them. Few parents know the rate of wages paid the boys and the time worked by them. They can only find this out by asking the boss—a thing the average parent will not do. Fathers working in the same colliery as their children are so indifferent to the children's earnings, that they know not when the "knock-down" is practiced by the boys. The boys are exceedingly skillful at the business. Many of them live in the same neighborhood and know that their mothers compare notes at pay-day. In order to guard against detection which may arise from a discrepancy in the pays of boys rated alike, they meet and agree to take out the same amount. Boys take in this way from 50 cents to $1 out of their two weeks' pay. In a local strike in 1900, some fathers complained that the boys did not get the regular rate of wages. When shown that they were paid the standard wage the parents were mortified to learn that they were victims of the "knock-down" habit. The revelation occasioned considerable comment and when a company of men discussed the question, one of them said: "It's an old trick: we used to do it ourselves." No one contradicted him, and some fathers practice it still—they hide a bill in the "bacca-box" before they hand the pay over to the wife.

Many of the boys patronize the slot machine, while some of them follow with great zeal cock-fighting and stake 5 or 10 or 25 cents on the main. Most of the small boys, however, spend their money in luxuries, and to watch these boys on pay night in the candy shop is one of the most amusing sights imaginable. They compare their cash; they count their change; they boast how much ice cream, candy, peanuts and soda they consume. The small boy lays away his cigarette very stealthily, while the veteran puffs boldly into the air. The lad of 16 years is about to pass from the candy store, but still lingering where the younger boys are, he feels the dawn of independence, and smokes a cigar to the envy of the smaller lads. All the rivalry, the cunning, the shrewdness, the vanity and the follies of life are seen here as in a microcosm. It is the drama of life in its pleasures, anxieties and pains.

Boys from 12 to 14 years spend from $1 to $2 a month. Those limited to 50 cents or a $1 "blow it in" on pay-night. Those having $1.50 to $2 are "flush" the night after pay, but the evening following they are all on a par —every pocket is empty. The only time the economic vision of these boys is exercised is when the circus comes to town. Then close figuring is done. They come to the last 30 or 25 cents. That they stow away for the expected night, sacrificing the pleasures of the moment for the promise of a good show. Stores which give the boys "tick" soon get out of business. A boy that owes 25 cents steers clear of that bill. The small boy's trade can only be held on a strictly cash basis.

When the lad reaches 16 or 17 years he leaves the candy shop. He feels himself above the small boys that congregate there and he hankers for something other than the "soft stuff" sold in them. It is the turning point in the young man's career. From his early boyhood every pay-night meant a dissipation after the manner of boys. He still craves for that excitement and dissipation and, forsaking the candy store, he finds only one place of welcome—the saloon. Candy is no longer the basis of his dissipation. It is beer and tobacco. When this hour comes many are the boys in mining towns who frequent saloons, for there is no other place provided to meet their requirements.

What happened next …

By 1914, most states had enacted child labor laws. Children were required to be at least twelve or fourteen years old to be employed, and work days were limited to ten hours. Both of these requirements were frequently ignored, and since there were few official inspections, there was really no way to enforce the law. In addition, many children's parents provided birth certificates in which the birth date had been falsified. So employers were hiring children they may have known were under the legal age limit, but they had official paperwork to protect them.

In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) formed. The NCLC worked tirelessly for child labor reform on the federal level. The first law of its kind was not passed until 1916, and it was in effect for only two years. That law prohibited the movement of goods across state lines if the manufacturers violated minimum age laws. Unfortunately, this law was almost impossible to enforce, and so it had little impact on the life and work conditions of child laborers.

It would be 1938 before the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. That law regulated minimum wages of employment and work hours for children.

Did you know …

  • Anthracite coal was once considered useless because it did not burn as easily as bituminous, or soft, coal. A handful of creative individuals redesigned furnaces and stoves, and anthracite coal became the most effective fuel for heating homes and businesses. It burns cleaner, longer, and with less waste than its softer counterpart.
  • A payroll book from November 1918 revealed that miners usually worked eight to ten hours daily, but that sixteen-hour shifts were not uncommon. Weekly wages for unskilled laborers were $10.52 to $11.82, while skilled labor received an average of $15.77 weekly. Mine supervisors, or foremen, earned $140 a week.
  • Miners used to send canaries down into the mines before descending themselves. If the canaries died, the level of methane gas (a highly explosive gas) was dangerous. If the birds survived, miners knew oxygen levels were good and the air was safe to breathe.
  • Rats were common in mines, and miners depended on them for their safety. If rats began scurrying across mine floors, that meant they were feeling the vibrations of an oncoming explosion. Miners recognized the warning and could sometimes escape injury or death by following the rats out of the mines.

Consider the following …

  • What are the moral issues of child labor?
  • Explain the relationship between poverty and child labor, and compare child labor as it exists in the twenty-first century with that in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
  • How might industrial America have been different without child labor?

For More Information


Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Kids on Strike! Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Kuchta, David. Once a Man, Twice a Boy. Nesquehoning, PA: Kiwi Publishing, 2002.

Leonard, Joseph W. Anthracite Roots: Generations of Coal Mining in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2005.

Poliniak, Louis. When Coal Was King. Lancaster, PA: Applied Arts Publishers, 1989. Reprint, 2004.

Richards, J. Stuart. Early Coal Mining in the Anthracite Region. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Roberts, Peter. Anthracite Coal Communities: A Study of the Demography, the Social, Educational and Moral Life of the Anthracite Regions. New York: Macmillan, 1904. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Williams, William G. The Coal King's Slaves: A Coal Miner's Story. Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 2002.


Bache, Rene. "The Campaign to End Child Labor: Shrimps and Babies." (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Bogan, Dallas. "Life of a Coal Miner; Its Slow Progress: Boy Begins in Breaker, Old Man Ends in Breaker." Originally published in the LaFollette Press. Reprinted on Tennessee Genealogy and History. (accessed on August 12, 2006).

"The Campaign to End Child Labor: Newsboys in the Second Cities." (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Eckley Miner's Village. (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Hine, Lewis. "Child Labor in America 1908–1912: Photographs of Lewis W. Hine." The History Place. (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Lauver, Fred. "A Walk Through the Rise and Fall of Anthracite Might." Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Markham, Edward, Benjamin B. Lindsey, and George Creel. "The Campaign to End Child Labor: Children in Bondage." (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Ohio State University, Department of History. "The Boys in the Breakers." (accessed on August 13, 2006).

Van Kleeck, Mary. "The Campaign to End Child Labor: Child Labor in New York City Tenements." (accessed on August 12, 2006).

Factories where coal was processed.
Perform mathematical functions.
Inability to read and write.
Mother tongue:
Native language.
One of a race of people from Eastern and Northern Europe.
Native born:
Born in America.
A famous lawyer from Ancient Greece.
Related to beauty and art.
High energy.
Woe betide:
Misery comes to.
Torn or crushed.
Funeral procession.
Hilarity, usually accompanied by laughter.
Government region, such as a county.
New workers.
Experienced workers.
Per capita:
Per person.
Cut the boxes:
Open the boxes to sell cigarettes individually.
Coal mine, outbuildings, and equipment.
Protest in which employees refuse to work.
Brought about.
Tobacco box.
Main fight.
Business sense.
Small system representative of a larger system.
On a par:
Hankers for:
A dissipation:
Spending thoughtlessly.
Often visit.