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  • The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century
  • James R. Barrett
The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. By Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. x plus 268 pp. $64, cloth; $24.95, paper).

The roots of this story of industrial decline and death lie in Pennsylvania's ancient anthracite coal fields, the cradle of American industry and labor organization, amidst the vaunted prosperity of the 1920s. This makes it a particularly important study of what we have come to call "deindustrialization." Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht provide a fascinating long-term analysis of a process that has been repeated in industrial communities throughout the United States and elsewhere over the past generation. Their study will benefit historians and other scholars of industrial economy and working-class life, of course, but it should also interest policy makers and indeed anyone who is trying to pick up the pieces of our industrial collapse and make a new start for those who have produced this society's great wealth.

An introduction highlights the devastating economic decline in the region in the second half of the twentieth century; then the book begins with the region's geology and its industrial and demographic explosion in the nineteenth century. Reaching their zenith in World War One, production and employment plummeted throughout the twenties and thirties, resuscitated only briefly by wartime demand. By the late fifties the industry was all but dead. The remaining chapters document the efforts of the region's institutions and families to cope with this economic catastrophe and their ultimate failure to sustain a way of life they clearly treasured.

The authors suggest four broad elements to explain this collapse: The depletion of the most accessible coal seams; the decline in the domestic market due largely (though not entirely) to introduction of oil and natural gas; mechanization, as strip methods came to dominate what little mining survived; and the circumscribed geography of the market in an era when a global reach became vital to survival. Neither the companies nor the UMWA seemed to know what to do about all this, but the miners and their communities showed great resiliency, with their strikes, "work equalization" schemes, and bootleg operations taking on an increasingly desperate quality in the course of the thirties. As anthracite declined as a proportion of membership and the UMWA leadership became increasingly preoccupied with business schemes in the postwar era, the region's local union leaders drifted into a morass of corruption and autocracy, once again leaving anthracite communities largely to their own devices. A rank and file movement seized control of the UMWA in the seventies, but by that time there was nothing left to save. [End Page 472]

The authors sympathetically analyze a series of economic strategies on the part of local communities and anti-poverty and regional development programs introduced by the federal government, but the most compelling chapters are those describing how mining families themselves coped. In the first generation, mothers increasingly entered the workforce and remained there for longer periods. Miner fathers commuted for work in distant auto and steel towns, persisted by taking up what little service or manufacturing work remained, or survived on social security and Black Lung benefits. Some families finally capitulated, moving to industrial suburbs in northern New Jersey or southeastern Pennsylvania. Those migrants interviewed lamented the loss of the mining towns' rich ethnic working-class cultures and their underground work lives. They returned often, and many retired to their old communities. Their children were far more likely to maximize their options through education and then simply to migrate from the region. But even these exiles retained connections to the anthracite, with some returning after careers elsewhere. All of this begins to suggest the human toll involved in de-industrialization, which destroyed not only jobs and companies but also communities and lives.

Among the remarkable aspects of The Face of Decline is its range of sources and the skill with which Dublin and Licht weave them. These include the printed census for the entire century; the manuscript census for 1920; employment records; annual corporate reports; state...


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pp. 472-474
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