The Currency of Coal Mines: Coal Mine Scrip in a Local Community and a Wider Context

Authored by Ashley Compton

A rare 19th century 50 cent token issued by the Burrows family for the coal mine store in Midlothian. The token reads “W.R. Burrows Will Pay In Goods 50 Cts At Midlothian Store.” Courtesy of the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia, Chesterfield County, VA.

As early as the 1700’s, coal was discovered in the area of Chesterfield County, Virginia (McCartney 2019). The coal from these pits supplied the fuel to the cannon factory at Westham during the Revolutionary War until the pits were destroyed by the British in 1781 (McCartney 2019). The industry prospered in the area in the 1840’s-50’s, making Midlothian one of the largest settlements in the area (McCartney 2019).

After the Civil War, production of coal fell sharply, and the business in the area was never truly successful again (McCartney 2019). The Burrows family from Albion, NY bought the bankrupt Mid-Lothian mines from public auction in 1869 (McCartney 2019). After numerous accidents, including an explosion that killed thirty-two miners, and an embezzlement scandal, the Burrows family lost control of the mine in 1882 (McCartney 2019).

During the time that the Burrows family owned the coal mine, from 1869 to 1882, they issued coal mine scrip in the form of metal tokens (Packard 1993). Those tokens like the one pictured above were given to the miners as payment for their work and could be redeemed at the company’s store in Midlothian (Packard 1993). The tokens produced by the Midlothian coal company are rare because of the short period of time in which they were issued and because of the practice of recycling tokens after they were used (Packard 1993).

Issuing scrip was used widely by coal and lumber companies in isolated regions around the country so they could economize on the use of federally dispensed tender outside of company towns (Champ 2007). As with the miners who worked for Burrows, scrip was used as a method to pay wages and as a line of credit (Finnegan 2014). Scrip was often used by miners as credit in between paydays to buy goods, sharpen tools, and pay rent (National Parks Service 2016). Its use was generally limited to the company store and to the mining community of the company that issued the scrip (Finnegan 2014).

However, with the issuing of private money like scrip, there were opportunities for companies to abuse their employees. There was limited risk to the company that offered credit, and it was within their power to withhold money that was due to them (NPS 2016). Scrip, company stores, and the towns built around them were often used to exert control over the lives of miners (Johnson 1993). Companies were in the position to build infrastructure, where they paid for labor from miners while also selling commodities to them using scrip (Timberlake 1987). Employees paid with scrip had to use it at the company store giving them limited options (Johnson 1993). If they chose to leave the company, they had to have their scrip exchanged for cash, usually at a lesser value (Johnson 1993). Miners could not leave their jobs without paying their debt to the company they worked for (Johnson 1993). By the 1950’s, most states had outlawed scrip as payment, and eventually the questionable practice disappeared altogether (Finnegan 2014).

References:

Champ, Bruce. 2007. “Private Money in Our Past, Present, and Future.” Economic Commentary, no. January 1, 2007 (January). https://www.clevelandfed.org/newsroom-and-events/publications/economic-commentary/economic-commentary-archives/2007-economic-commentaries/ec-20070101-private-money-in-our-past-present-and-future.

Finnegan, Beauregard J. 2014. “Scrip – Coal Company Tokens.” Last Modified 2014. http://www.coincollectorguide.com/scrip-coal-company-tokens/.

Johnson, Roxanne Therese. 1993. “Scrip: The Alternative Unit-of-Measure in Company Towns,” The Accounting Historians Notebook 16, no. 1 (Spring): 1-4.

McCartney, Martha W. n.d. “Historic Overview Mid-Lothian Mines and Railroad Foundation – Midlothian, Virginia.” Mid-Lothian Mines Park. Accessed October 13, 2019. http://midlomines.org/historic-overview.html.

National Parks Service. 2016. “Scrip-A Coal Miner’s Credit Card – Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service).” https://www.nps.gov/biso/learn/historyculture/scrip.htm.

Packard, Jimmy. 1993. “Historic Midlothian tokens given to Chesterfield museum”. Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 23, 1993. J-8.

Timberlake, Richard H. 1987. “Free Market Money In Coal-Mining Communities.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 19, no. 4.

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