Creating Anthracite Women: The Roles of Architecture and Material Culture in Identity Formation in Pennsylvania Anthracite Company Towns, 1854-1940.

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Coal company towns are defined by the experiences of the men who owned and the men who worked in the mines, broadly ignoring the women and families who also inhabited and toiled in these spaces. In the Northeastern Pennsylvania anthracite region, women undertook a variety of methods to change their social positions through the renegotiation of their gender, ethnic, and class identities. Performing ‘proper’ middle class American gender expressions, including through the adoption of culturally-coded objects, provided working class women with greater social power and cultural autonomy within the context of systemic worker deprivation and ubiquitous corporate domination. Drawing on identity performance theories, material culture theories related to gender, class, and migration, and theories of the built environment, I examine how women established identities based in and reinforced by material culture and spatial organization

Drawing on archaeologically recovered material culture, oral histories, archival research, and architectural data, I demonstrate the ways in which working class women used cultural norms to elevate themselves and their status within their communities. Women were able to balance their needs with ubiquitous gender oppression within working class industrial society by mastering the tasks assigned to women – responsibilities as mothers, familial ministers, household managers, and feminine matrons – and using those positions to pursue what they needed for their own survival. These identities were further negotiated and enforced by the built environment. By examining household decorations, house floorplans, house lot spatial organization, and company town layouts as a whole, I discuss how workers and company town architects used the built environment to exert and subvert ideas of power, control, and self-determination. 

This research reveals that the process of identity formation amongst working class women in the anthracite region was a careful and complicated conversation between national level cultural influencers, industrial directors, and company town social trends. As women sought out and exploited new ways of exercising discretion over their otherwise structurally circumscribed situations, they gained social leverage and influence that has been consistently ignored in modern retellings of their lives.