A breaker boy was a coal-mining worker, especially common in Pennsylvania, whose job was to separate impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker. Most breaker boys were between 8 and 12 years old. The use of breaker boys began around 1866. 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 from the coal. A coal breaker breaks coal into pieces and sorts them into categories of roughly uniform size. Its second function is to remove impurities like rock, slate, sulphur, ash, clay, or soil. This became necessary when coal started being used in factories and iron works. The work of the breaker boys was hazardous. They had to work without gloves to better handle the slick coal, and their fingers were often cut by the sharp slate. Breaker boys could easily lose fingers, amputated by the rapidly moving conveyor belts, or even feet, hands, arms, or legs as they moved among the machinery and were caught under the conveyor belts or in gears. Many were crushed to death, and the supervisors would retrieve their bodies from the machinery only at the end of the working day. Because of the dust, breaker boys sometimes wore lamps on their heads to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common. When the coal was washed to remove impurities it would create sulfuric acid which burned the hands of the breaker boys. By the age of twelve the boys were considered old enough to start work in the mine itself. By then most of them were already hunchbacked like old men. Although the first laws to protect the breaker boys were enacted in 1885, the coal mines continued to employ them. Their numbers finally began to decline in the 1910s due to improvements in technology, stricter child labor laws, and the enactment of compulsory education.
Breaker boys were known for their fierce independence and their rejection of adult authority. They often formed and joined trade unions, and precipitated a number of important strikes in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. Among these were the strike which culminated in the Lattimer Massacre (19 unarmed strikers were shot dead by a posse of the Luzerne County sheriff) and the Coal Strike of 1902.
Coal breakers were used primarily in the United States, especially at the anthracite coal mines of Pennsylvania. Their main function was to break coal into pieces and grade the lumps into six commercial sizes. Until about 1900, nearly all anthracite coal breakers were labor-intensive. Impurities were removed by hand, usually by young boys. Coal breakers were generally located as close to the anthracite mine entrance as possible, so as to minimize the distance the coal had to travel before processing; but this had its hazards. In the UK, the government enacted a law in the mid-19th century requiring that coal breakers be built away from mine entrances. But in the US, neither the federal government nor the states adopted regulation of coal breakers until after many lives had been lost. Two disasters prompted the adoption of legislation. The first occurred on September 6, 1869, when a small explosion at the Avondale mine in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, blew flames up the mine shaft. The wooden breaker built over the mine opening caught fire and collapsed, trapping and killing 110 workers in the mine below. No action was taken at that time. But in 1871, a fire destroyed the wooden breaker built over a mine opening in West Pittston, Pennsylvania, trapping and killing 24 miners. The state of Pennsylvania finally adopted a law in 1885 requiring that coal breakers be situated at least 200 feet from the opening of any mine.
Top Image: Breaker boys, Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, PA [ca 1900] photographer unknown. Copyright Detroit Publishing Co. Source: Library of Congress.
Bottom: Coal Breaker web-images.