The term “breaker boys” doesn’t refer to the work the boys did, but the buildings in
which they did it. It was the machinery that actually broke the coal; the boys’ job was to separate the unusable slate from the coal, and often also to sort the coal by size. “Slate pickers” is another name for breaker boys.
     The breaker boys were sons of immigrant miners. Generally, they were anywhere from 10 to 14 years old, but they could be younger – or much older. Sometimes parents – particularly widowed mothers – had to send their boys into the breakers in order to put food on the family’s table. But life was very different in 1897 than it is today. Often, the immigrant family chose to put its children to work in order to
get ahead more quickly in the New World, to save money for a house or to send cash or goods back to relatives in the native country. Usually, the boys were very proud of their contribution to their families. They often felt that school was a waste of time, and that it was for girls.

    At around age 14, boys generally “went underground” to take other jobs on the path to becoming full-fledged miners. Sometimes, a grown man who had been injured underground ended up returning to the breaker, doing a child’s work again. There was a saying in coal country: “once a miner, twice a breaker boy.”

     Many books and movies about coal country paint the breaker boys as dull, defeated creatures, trudging listlessly to work and home again. But my research showed that the reality was quite different. At the start, I was surprised to find period photographs showing breaker boys as defiant and devilish. I also came across firsthand accounts by former breaker boys who talk about all the trouble they caused in the breaker, the fun and fights they had during lunch break, and how they’d play after work. There’s no question that these boys had hard lives – but they were far from lifeless.                     


Who were the breaker boys?