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  • "It's the Union Man That Holds the Winning Hand":Gambling in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region
  • Karol K. Weaver (bio)

Gambling is everywhere in Pennsylvania. Turn on the television and you are enticed to visit Mohegan Sun, one of the state's casinos. Stop by a convenience store and be lured by the dream of the next big lottery win. Pass by a local church and read a sign that invites you to "Bingo!" Talk of gambling in Pennsylvania made former governor Ed Rendell so heated that he called CBS news staffers "simpletons" and "idiots" after they questioned the extent and morality of gambling in Pennsylvania.1 Politicians, development professionals, and ordinary Pennsylvanians are betting that gambling will bring the state and its economy some much-needed luck. Throughout history, gambling has reflected major cultural values of a given society. Using the anthracite region in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a case study, this article shows that gambling opportunities abounded in the anthracite coal region, even as the activity came under fire. Coal-region residents gambled because gambling provided them [End Page 401] with leisure activities, it was religiously sanctioned, and it represented a sense of control in their otherwise risky and chance-filled lives.

Pennsylvania's anthracite region lies in the northeastern and north-central portions of the state. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ethnic diversity, class differences, and religious variety characterized the region. The influx of "new immigrants" from eastern and southern Europe to Pennsylvania was immense. Between 1899 and 1914, over 2.3 million immigrants contributed to making Pennsylvania one of the nation's industrial powerhouses. Drawn by the promise of work, many new immigrants made the anthracite coalfields their destination. American-born descendants of English, Welsh, German, and Irish immigrants inhabited the area, as did the new immigrants. The region's economic livelihood depended on anthracite coal mining by men and boys and textile manufacturing by women and girls.2 Class distinctions based on where one figured into the coal economy divided residents. The area also was a diverse blend of religions. Catholics outnumbered both Protestants and a small community of Jews. Although men, women, boys, and girls worked hard, they appreciated and took advantage of the leisure time that they possessed. One type of activity in which they readily and eagerly participated was gambling.

The story of gambling in the anthracite coal region will build upon work done by scholars who specialize in the history of gambling, the history of mining, and the history of Pennsylvania. Many scholars who have studied gambling in the United States have presented broad surveys of the subject. When they have concentrated on specific regions of the nation, they have focused on gaming in the West, particularly as a characteristic of the settlement of the frontier.3 Historian of Pennsylvania Anthony F. C. Wallace considered risk seeking when analyzing the Pennsylvania coal town of Saint Clair, but focused his study on mine owners, not miners or other working-class residents.4 The connection between mining, gambling, and risk also drew the attention of Gunther Peck, who investigated the class, gender, and racial dimensions of risk-taking in Nevada's silver mines. Peck noted that "[the study of how] miners responded to a spectrum of physical and financial risks . . . remain[s] neglected."5 This article works to fill that need by analyzing the ethnic, gendered, religious, and occupational dimensions of gambling in Pennsylvania's anthracite region.

To get at the meaning of gambling for the men and women of the anthracite coal region, theories derived from anthropology, working-class studies, and feminist theory are employed. The field of anthropology looks at gambling in the context of the culture in which the activity takes place. Specifically, anthropologists see gambling as reflecting the values of the people who [End Page 402] participate in the activity.6 Similarly, this study shows that gambling in the anthracite coal region displays the ethnic diversity of the area, reflects the gender divisions that existed there, indicates the religious worldview and situation of the residents, and echoes the dangerous work environment of the area.

The article also draws from working-class studies and feminist...


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pp. 401-419
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