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Little Miners. U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) Little Miners.

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little miners

Little Miners

U.S. Department of Labor

Mine Safety &

Health Administration


little miners2
Little Miners
  • In the early years of the 20th century, children as young as eight years old worked in the coal mines. The work was hard and the "little boys" grew old and stooped before their time.
  • An 1885 law required boys to be at least twelve to work in the coal breakers and at least fourteen to work inside the mines. A 1902 law raised the age to fourteen to work in the breakers. Although child labor laws did not allow children under fourteen to work in the mines, some states did not have compulsory registration of birth. Boys were passed off as "small for their age".
  • The Children's Bureau was created within the Department of Commerce and Labor on April 9, 1912. It was transferred to the newly created Department of Labor on March 4, 1913. The first Federal Child Labor Law was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on September 1, 1916.
  • The following is a series of pictures and stories about children who worked long hours in this country's coal mines and the most common jobs they performed before child labor laws were passed.
breaker boys4
Breaker Boys
  • The coal was crushed, washed, and sorted according to size at the breaker. The coal tumbled down a chute and moved along a moving belt.
  • Boys, some as young as eight, worked in the picking room. They worked hunched over 10 to 11 hours a day, six days a week, sorting rock, slate and other refuse from the coal with their bare hands. If the boy did not pay attention, he might lose fingers in the machinery.
breaker boys5
Breaker Boys

View of the Ewen Breaker of the

Pennsylvania Coal Company, January 10, 1911

The dust was so dense at times that the view was obscured. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boys lungs. A kind of slave driver sometimes stood over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience.

breaker boys6
Breaker Boys

Hughestown Borough Coal Co., Pittston, PA, January 16, 1911.


Boys worked underground as nippers and spraggers. The boys holding the pieces of wood were spraggers. Only the fastest boys could be spraggers because they controlled the speed of the mine cars as they rolled down the slope. They worked in pairs. Each boy had about twenty or thirty sprags.

As the mine cars rolled downhill the spraggers ran alongside the cars and jabbed the sprags into the wheels. The sprags worked as brakes, slowing the cars down. The job was very dangerous. The car could fly out of control and jump the track and crash into the mine wall if the wheels were not spragged properly.


The nipper was the door keeper. He was the youngest of the boys working underground, usually eleven to thirteen years old. His job was to open the heavy door when he heard a coal car approaching, then quickly close the door after the load passed through.

The nipper sat long hours by himself in the dark with only his carbide cap lamp for light. He was often bored and sometimes whittled long pieces of wood into sprags or trapped the rats to pass the time.


When the nipper heard an approaching car, he opened the door to let the mule and the driver pass through with their load of coal.

It was very important that the nipper did not fall asleep and allow the coal car to crash through the door. The door was vital to the mine's ventilation system.

mule driver
Mule Driver

The most exciting job for the boys was mule driver. The job was usually held by an older boy in his early teens. The mule driver traveled all through the mine coupling full cars together and leaving an empty car behind in the work chamber. The boy started out with one mule and then worked up to a six-mule team. When he was able to drive a six-mule team, he was given a man's wages.

The mule driver sat on the front bumper of the coal car and used his voice to direct the mules. If the mule was stubborn, he used a black snake whip. A good mule driver was respected by both the miners and bosses. He had no problem obtaining a job as a miner when he was older.


Boy running "trip rope" at a tipple. The tripper is a device that discharges material from a belt conveyor. It has a double pulley that turns a short section of a conveyor belt upside down in order to dump its load into a side chute.

The boy looked to be about 13 years old. He worked 10 hours a day at a Welch, WV, coal mine.

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Little Miners

He never got used to the noise, the dust, or the threat of danger. He was proud to earn money to help his family. That was the life of a miner's son. Fathers and sons knew no other work.