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Promotion, Competition, Captivity: The Political Economy of Coal
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Journal of Policy History 18.1 (2006) 74-95

The Political Economy of Coal

Sean Patrick Adams

University of Florida

"Coal is, perhaps, the most indispensable article used by man. Without it, in time, we should return to a state of barbarism." So proclaimed the president of Pennsylvania's Pequa Railroad and Improvement Company in 1849. The importance of coal, the official explained, lay in its utility as an energy source, for which he hailed it as unsurpassed: coal was "'hoarded labor'"—a "treasure reserved by nature to promote and perfect our civilization." The railroad official's florid tribute to the mineral fuel was hardly disinterested: the Pequa Railroad had ambitious plans to ship a great deal of coal. Yet it effectively underscored the enormous role of coal in nineteenth-century America. It was an age in which, as countless industry boosters proclaimed, coal was king.

It had not always been so. Coal did not emerge as a major energy source until the early republic, when the inhabitants of several large seaboard cities—Boston, Philadelphia, and New York—began to substitute it for wood as a heating fuel. The coal these urbanites burned was bituminous; by the 1830s, a second kind of coal—anthracite—would also find a market. By mid-century, both bituminous and anthracite would be widely used not only as a heating fuel but also as motive power for machinery of all kinds—from railroad engines to textile equipment. In 1850, coal accounted for around 10 percent of the fuel that Americans purchased (wood accounted for most of the rest). During the second half of the nineteenth century, coal consumption would skyrocket. By the 1890s, miners raised over two tons of coal for every man, woman, and child in the country; by 1900, coal purchases accounted for fully two-thirds of the nation's fuel bill (with wood, gas, and illuminating oil making up most of the rest).

Coal supplemented, without ever entirely supplanting, older, renewable forms of energy such as wind, water, and animal power. Human labor, too, remained a potent energy source, as the historian of technology Dolores Greenberg has perceptively observed. Yet the significance of coal would be hard to exaggerate. By shifting from wood to coal as an energy source, the United States capitalized on the immense coal deposits that lay within its boundaries. Coal was not only abundant but powerful. By harnessing it as a source of motive power, industrialists increased enormously the speed with which machinery could process raw materials and move about people and goods. These "economies of speed," as business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. has termed them, were a key factor in the emergence by 1900 of the United States as one of the world's leading industrial nations. The shift from wood to coal in the processing of raw materials was especially critical to the emergence of a new kind of economic organization—the modern business enterprise. The opening of the Pennsylvania anthracite fields, as Chandler observed over three decades ago, "greatly influenced the timing and the process of the coming of the large, subdivided business enterprise in American manufacturing and mining."

Coal was equally important in hastening the rise of America's cities. Had urbanites had no alternative to wood, heating costs might well have spiked upward as wood stocks declined, slowing the epochal migration from the countryside, where wood remained plentiful, to the city, where it was not. The abundance of cheap coal hastened a parallel migration of the factory. No longer were manufacturers obliged to build their factories in often-isolated locations to take advantage of the energy released by swiftly flowing rivers. Once coal had proven itself as a motive power, factories, too, could migrate from country to the city.

The United States in the nineteenth century did not have a single, coherent energy policy. Rather, each state had its own energy policy—which, taken together, created a highly fragmented and somewhat chaotic regulatory regime that encouraged the production and consumption of vast quantities of coal. Nature made coal abundant; public policy made it cheap.

The fragmentation of American energy policy had the largely unintended effect of ensuring that the coal industry...

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