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Review: "The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century"

Updated on April 21, 2017
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson is a graduate student who specializes in the field of Russian and Ukrainian history.



In Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht’s book, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century, the authors provide a systematic analysis of the rise and fall of anthracite mining during the twentieth-century. Throughout their analysis, the authors point out that anthracite’s demise was neither singular nor simplistic. Instead, the authors aptly demonstrate that the region’s economic decline was multifaceted and can be traced to many factors, including: the depletion of surface-level coal deposits that occurred from strip-mining and over-production, coal’s new competition with superior fossil-fuels (such as natural gas and oil), as well as failures to expand coal-consumption into broader markets. According to the authors, these problems were further compounded by the Great Depression. As tensions between workers and mining operators reached an all-time high, layoffs and wage restrictions became an all too common thread for the mining community during this time. With unions failing to acquire adequate concessions for workers, and politicians failing to intervene with appropriate policies and measures to alleviate the growing concerns, both Dublin and Licht argue that the anthracite region began its dramatic fall by the middle of the century. Although World War Two provided a sense of recovery for the coal industry (due to the tremendous needs of the wartime economy), the authors argue that this intermission was temporal, as investors used the wartime years as an opportunity to diversify their companies in a manner that effectively ended anthracite mining as a dominant industry in the decades that followed.

Main Points

Using a social, environmental, and labor perspective to argue their main points, both Dublin and Licht address how working class men (and women) fought to survive this newfound change in their livelihoods after years of operating within the coal mines. Because of the coal industry’s long-term presence in the Pennsylvania anthracite region, the industry’s collapse forced families to adapt to a brand new work (and cultural) environment; an environment often devoid of jobs, industry, and businesses since the coal companies had effectively prevented competition from entering these communities for decades. To adapt, the authors argue that local communities were forced to come together as they attempted to rebuild their society through government aid, petitions, fundraisers, and events designed to attract businesses to their area. As a result of these changes, the authors argue that women were often forced into the workforce (against the wishes of men) as a means of supplementing their husband’s incomes (typically derived from pensions, social security, or wages made from commuting to neighboring regions for work). As such, the author’s make the case that anthracite’s decline fundamentally altered the former coal-communities in a number of dramatic ways. Yet, surprisingly, the author’s make the point that these communities remained close-knit through the duration of it all, as neighbors, former co-workers, friends, and family all maintained strong relations and sympathies toward their heritage, community, and coal-based history; even as many moved away or migrated to neighboring areas looking for better opportunities; and even as de-industrialization had largely destroyed and crippled their communities and way of life, economically.

Personal Thoughts

All in all, both authors provide a thorough and well-argued account of the coal industry’s development (and demise) across Pennsylvania from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. The thesis of this book is well-articulated and presented. Moreover, I was particularly impressed with the considerable amount of detail that both of the authors incorporate within this work and the large array of primary source materials that they use to support each of their claims. These sources include: oral interviews (from miners, union officials, politicians, and mine officials), local newspapers (such as the Scranton Times), federal census figures, bank records, corporate documents and reports from local mines, union documents, Congressional hearings from the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as bankruptcy proceedings (particularly from P&RC&I).

While this book was clearly intended for a more academic audience (considering its publication through Cornell University Press), general audience members can equally appreciate this book due to its narrative-driven style and easy-to-read format. I was also highly impressed with the large array of graphs and statistical data that was incorporated within the confines of this work. The charts and data provided by the authors allow for an interesting comparison of facts and figures that give the reader a chance to trace population growth, migrations, and production figures. These charts and statistics – coupled with the vast array of photographs included – provide a nice visual and numerical representation of the narrative they are constructing. This, in turn, adds a substantial degree of clarity and persuasiveness to their overall argument and claims.

In regard to shortcomings of this book, I was a bit disappointed with the lack of information pertaining to coal mines operating outside of the Pennsylvania anthracite region (for comparative purposes). Although they briefly discuss the Central Appalachian coal industry during the closing arguments of the book, more information on this particular aspect would have been a great addition to their overall book. Moreover, while I was impressed with the level of statistics and data used in this book, particular chapters seemed to focus too much on quantitative-based research. This was particularly evident in the “Sons and Daughters” chapter, in which the use of statistical research seemed to overshadow the narrative portions of their discussion. Attempting to follow each statistical claim proved to be quite challenging since the authors jump from one claim to the next in rapid succession. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as their main argument remains intact for the duration of the chapter.

In closing, Dublin and Licht’s book is a great addition to current scholarship and offers an account that fits nicely alongside Thomas Andrews’, Killing for Coal. I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a history of American coal-mining during the twentieth-century. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!

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Questions for Further Discussion

1.) What was Dublin and Licht's thesis? What are some of the main points they make in this work? Did you find their thesis to be persuasive? Why or why not?

2.) Did you find this work engaging?

3.) Did Dublin and Licht do a good job with their organization of this book? Were the chapters organized in a logical manner?

4.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Are there any particular areas that the authors could have improved?

5.) Who was the target audience for this book? Can both scholars and non-academics benefit from the contents of this piece?

6.) Did you learn anything from reading this book that you did not know before?

7.) What type of primary source material does Dublin and Licht incorporate? Does this reliance help or hinder their main points?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Andrews, Thomas. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003.

Green, James. The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia's Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015.

Works Cited:

Dublin, Thomas and Walter Licht. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.


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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 months ago from USA

      This was a very well written review and extremely timely given the political atmosphere and empty promises that we face. We need to accept that coal is not coming back and the people of these regions need to retool for success in other industries.