Lewis Hine caption: At the close of the day. Just up from the shaft. All work below ground in a Pennsylvania Coal Mine. Smallest boy, next to right hand end is a nipper. On his right is Arthur, a driver, Jo on Arthur’s right is a nipper. Frank, boy on left end of photo, is a nipper, works a mile underground from the shaft, which is 5000 Ft. down. Location: [South Pittston?], Pennsylvania, January 1911.
“He was the most wonderful person you’d ever want to meet. He did everything for us. He worked very hard. We never had any money, but we never did without anything.” -Angeline Deardorff, daughter of Joseph Puma
As the caption says, Joseph Puma (referred to only as Jo in the photo) was a nipper. Nippers, also called trappers or trap boys, opened and closed the doors that sealed off mine shafts so that fresh air could be pumped down to the workers. When the coal cars (usually mule-driven wagons) passed, the nippers had to quickly open the door to let them through, which was dangerous, because there was always a risk of being hit by the fast-moving car. It was a dark, lonely and boring job for long stretches of time while the nipper waited for another car to come, so it was hard to stay awake, making the job even more perilous.
In The Bitter Cry of the Children, a book published in 1909, author John Spargo, a writer and social activist, described child labor conditions in the coal mines in the early 1900s. In the final paragraph, he refers to the plight of the “trap-boys,” boys like Joe Puma.
“According to the census of 1900, there were 25,000 boys under sixteen years of age employed in and around the mines and quarries of the United States. In the state of Pennsylvania alone – the state which enslaves more children than any other – there are thousands of little ‘breaker boys’ employed, many of them not more than nine or ten years old. The law forbids the employment of children under fourteen, and the records of the mines generally show that the law is ‘obeyed.’ Yet in May, 1905, an investigation by the National Child Labor Committee showed that in one small borough of 7000 population, among the boys employed in breakers, 35 were nine years old, 40 were ten, 45 were eleven, and 45 were twelve – over 150 boys illegally employed in one section of boy labor in one small town! During the anthracite coal strike of 1902, I attended the Labor Day demonstration at Pittston and witnessed the parade of another at Wilkes Barre. In each case there were hundreds of boys marching, all of them wearing their ‘working buttons,’ testifying to the fact that they were bona fide workers. Scores of them were less than ten years of age, others were eleven or twelve.”
“Work in the coal breakers is exceedingly hard and dangerous. Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour, picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past to the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed and bent-backed like old men. When a boy has been working for some time and begins to get round-shouldered, his fellows say that, ‘He’s got his boy to carry round wherever he goes.’ The coal is hard, accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust fill the breakers and are inhaled by the boys, laying the foundations for asthma and miners’ consumption. I once stood in a breaker for half an hour and tried to do the work a twelve-year-old boy was doing day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, for sixty cents a day. The gloom of the breaker appalled me. Outside the sun shone brightly, the air was pellucid, and the birds sang in chorus with the trees and the rivers. Within the breaker there was blackness, clouds of deadly dust enfolded everything, the harsh, grinding roar of the machinery and the ceaseless rushing of coal through the chutes filled the ears. I tried to pick out the pieces of slate from the hurrying stream of coal, often missing them; my hands were bruised and cut in a few minutes; I was covered from head to foot with coal dust, and for many hours afterwards I was expectorating some of the small particles of anthracite I had swallowed.”
“I could not do that work and live, but there were boys of ten and twelve years of age doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of them had never been inside of a school; few of them could read a child’s primer. True, some of them attended the night schools, but after working ten hours in the breaker the educational results from attending school were practically nil. From the breakers the boys graduate to the mine depths, where they become door tenders, switch-boys, or mule-drivers. Here, far below the surface, work is still more dangerous. At fourteen or fifteen the boys assume the same risks as the men, and are surrounded by the same perils.”
“Nor is it in Pennsylvania only that these conditions exist. In the bituminous mines of West Virginia, boys of nine or ten are frequently employed. I met one little fellow ten years old in Mt. Carbon, W. Va., last year, who was employed as a ‘trap boy.’ Think of what it means to be a trap boy at ten years of age. It means to sit alone in a dark mine passage hour after hour, with no human soul near; to see no living creature except the mules as they pass with their loads, or a rat or two seeking to share one’s meal; to stand in water or mud that covers the ankles, chilled to the marrow by the cold draughts that rush in when you open the trap-door for the mules to pass through; to work for fourteen hours – waiting – opening and shutting a door – then waiting again – for sixty cents; to reach the surface when all is wrapped in the mantle of night, and to fall to the earth exhausted and have to be carried away to the nearest ‘shack’ to be revived before it is possible to walk to the farther shack called home.”
Lewis Hine caption: At the close of the day. Waiting for the cage to go up. The cage is entirely open on two sides and not very well protected on other two, and is usually crowded like this. Small boy in front is Jo Pume, a Nipper, 163 Pine Street. Shaft #6, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania, January 1911.
Lewis Hine caption: Resting with the load at the head of the slope. Shaft #6 Pennsylvania Coal Co., Small boy is Jo Puma, a Nipper, 163 Pine Street. Jo’s mother showed me the passport which shows Jo to be 14 years old, but he has no school certificate, although working inside the mine. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania, January 1911.
I found one of Joe’s daughters in the oddest of ways. After finding Joe in the census and the Social Security Death Index, I searched for him in the newspaper archives in Ancestry.com. His name came up in a short article published in the Gettysburg Times on September 9, 1952. It said in part, “Announcement is made of the marriage of Miss Angeline G. Puma, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Puma, Geneva, NY, who became the bride of Robert J. Deardorff…” It didn’t take long at find Angeline, who currently lives in Pennsylvania. She was stunned, but pleased when she received the photograph of her father. It’s the only one she has of her father as a boy.
Joseph Puma was born in Italy on January 29, 1896 (some records say 1897), to Alessandro and Josephine Puma, who were married in Italy in about 1895 and came to the US in 1906. So Hine’s statement in the caption that he was 14 years old is about right. In the 1910 census, Joseph’s occupation is listed as “door tender.” He was the second oldest child in the home; his older brother Charles was a wagon driver in the mine. Joseph married Angeline Capazzi about 1922. In the 1930 census, they were listed as living with his parents in Pittston, and Joe was a truck driver.
Edited interview with Angeline Deardorff (AD), daughter of Joseph Puma. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on October 17, 2007. Transcribed by Jessica Sleevi and edited by Manning.
JM: What was your reaction when you saw the picture?
AD: Oh, it was great. I said, ‘Oh my God, he looks like my brother. I had the chills. I never knew that my dad was that young when he went to work in the mine.
JM: What do you think about your father having worked in the mine at such a young age?
AD: Well, I think back then he probably had to. He was helping to support his family as well as his grandmother and grandfather, who lived with them.
JM: Do you have other pictures of your father at that age?
AD: No, not until he was in the army.
JM: What year were you born?
JM: When you were very young, was your father working in the mine?
AD: Yes. Then he had an accident and got carbuncles on the back of his neck. When they healed up, he bought his own coal truck and hauled coal.
JM: Did you ever go down in the mine?
AD: No. But the trestle was on the hill right behind our house. We used to walk up on the trestle and jump off of it. We got coal in our knees and our elbows. It was a lot of fun.
JM: What kind of house did you live in then?
AD: We had a big house. We lived in half of it, and in the other half was my father’s brother Tony and his wife. My father’s parents lived with us. They were wonderful. Once my grandmother took a dishrag and rolled it up and made me a little doll.
JM: Where were your parents born?
AD: My mother was born in this country, and my father was born in Italy.
JM: Could he speak English when he was growing up?
AD: I don’t know, but we all spoke Italian until my grandparents passed away.
JM: How many siblings did your father have?
AD: I’m not sure. He had four brothers, Sam, Louie, Charlie and Tony, who was the oldest. When I was young, Tony was killed in a mining accident. He was buried under a cave and they never found him.
JM: Did your father go to high school?
AD: No. I think he went to the fifth or sixth grade.
JM: How many years did you live in Pittston?
AD: I was about 12 when we left. We moved to New York State. There were 11 children in our family then. My mother’s first baby died. After school, we would work on the farms. We were like migrant workers. We were hauled all over in a truck. We went to Rushville and Cato, and eventually to Geneva, New York. We finally found a house there and bought it.
JM: When you moved to Geneva, did you continue working on farms?
AD: Yes, for a couple years. Then Dad got a job on the railroad.
JM: What was his job?
AD: I don’t know. He wasn’t in the trains, just on the tracks. He didn’t work very long there, and then he got a job at the Seneca Ordinance. That was an army depot. He worked there until he retired.
JM: Did your mother ever go out and work?
AD: Yes, she worked in the dress factories. Then she worked at the local cabbage places where you cut cabbage and make sauerkraut and all that stuff.
JM: Did you graduate from high school?
AD: I didn’t quite finish high school. I got married. My husband was in the service for 20 years. And when he retired, we moved to Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, which is near State College, where Penn State University is.
JM: What was your father like? What kind of a man was he?
AD: He was the most wonderful person you’d ever want to meet. He did everything for us. He worked very hard. We never had any money, but we never did without anything. We had plenty of food on the table. When we were living in Pittston, his brother Sam owned an ice cream company there. It was called the Evangeline Ice Cream Company. He had a lot of money and a nice family, but you know what? He would have given up everything to have the life that we had. My father passed away 10 days before his 69th birthday.
Joseph Puma, a veteran of World War I, passed away in Geneva, New York, on January 19, 1965, at the age of about 68. His wife Angelina passed away in Geneva on January 22, 1987, at the age of 81.
*Story published in 2009.