Sunday, June 26, 2016

Breaker boys: Postcard of child labor in Scranton, circa 1910

This damaged postcard, from around 1910, shows the Marvine Breaker (the tall building in the backgorund) and the Breaker Boys — child workers. The location is Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The postcard was made in Germany and published by C.S. Woolworth, also of Scranton. It was never written on or used.

Breaker boys' tough and dirty job was to separate the impurities from the coal by hand, and without gloves. Most breaker boys were children, and this form of child labor, which began in the 1860s, did not end until the 1920s. Their job is described in this Wikipedia excerpt:
"The removal of impurities was done by hand, usually by breaker boys between the ages of eight and 12 years old. ... For 10 hours a day, six days a week, breaker boys would sit on wooden seats, perched over the chutes and conveyor belts, picking slate and other impurities out of the coal. Breaker boys working on top of chutes or conveyor belts would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of fuel flowing beneath them, briefly pick out the impurities, and then let the coal pass on to the next breaker boy for further processing."
You can see breaker boys performing their duties in this postcard that was featured on Papergreat in 2011.

Job hazards for the children included frequent hand and figure cuts and accidental finger amputations in the machinery. Those were the minor hazards. Some were crushed to death under piles of coal or mangled in conveyor belts and gears. If they survived a few years of this labor, they might have asthma or lung disease as a parting gift. (Actually, if they survived being breaker boys, they most likely got sent down into the coal mines.)

The breaker boys in this postcard/photo look content. Maybe they were told to smile. Or maybe they were new recruits who hadn't yet spent much time perched over the coal chutes.

Some of them have objects that look like flowers. That might, though, be the result of the person hand-coloring the postcard and taking some artistic license. Here's a closer look at some of the breaker boys of long ago...

More info on breaker boys

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