Contested Competencies: Colliery Gardens, Wage Work, and the Social Effects of Capitalist Transformation in West Virginia, 1880-1940 Open Access

Hutton, Colin (Spring 2021)

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This thesis examines fundamental changes in life and labor experienced by West Virginian households during the region’s capitalist transformation from 1880 to 1940. The first chapter describes the pre-coal economy and ways of living in West Virginia. It discusses displacement as land was seized by coal companies and shows how company towns were established, coercing West Virginians to gradually move into them and started working for wages. It articulates the ways that personal gardens emerged in the face of a system of power imposed on coal mining families by companies that created their currencies and police forces. The second chapter uses gardens as a lens into the changes that coal mining brought to West Virginia families, including at the cultural level, social and political attitudes, and gender roles. The thesis ultimately argues that the system that emerged out of the tensions of garden laboring was one where mining families were able to gain a semblance of having independent sustenance and a tool of leverage against their employers, while ironically constantly facing the threat of being removed from the land they were using. It argues that at the same time, coal companies found it advantageous to let miners keep their own gardens because it allowed them to pay lower wages. It argues that the social system that arose in the hills and hollows—of company town authority, forced market dependency, and necessary subsistence work amidst an extractive capitalist economy—produced and reproduced poverty amongst coal mining communities. It contends that this manufactured poverty greatly affected the daily lives and living conditions of mining families—not only of the male worker, but also of his wife and his children, who at times carried the brunt of garden labor. It demonstrates that West Virginian cultural habits, behaviors and attitudes deemed destructive and backwards came under scrutiny, first by company officials and later by historians and anthropologists.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Industrial Economy, Gardens, and Exploitation in Coal Company Towns..........10

Chapter 2: Gender and Social Reproduction in the Dwindling Competency..........33

Conclusion: Contested Legacies of the Coal Economy..........58


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