Scrapbook Friday: Paycheck Edition

Today there is often a great deal of talk about a “living wage”, a minimum amount of hourly pay necessary for a person to meet his or her basic needs (housing, food, etc). This wage is calculated regionally, based on an area’s relative cost of living. The average calculation for such a wage in the US is about 11-13 dollars an hour, which for a standard 40 hour work week you’re talking about a base pay of about $480 a week.

I bring this up as an interesting counterpoint to today’s scrapbook subject – Champion Mine pay checks. Once again we have the fine folks at Painesdale Mine and Shaft to thank for today’s materials, as they have a rather large and substantial collection of these checks in their archives. These were the cancelled checks returned to the company after workers had cashed them at local banks, endorsed on their reverse by the people they were made out to. For my DVD I picked out a selection of these checks to feature as hidden bonus items, checks spanning a good portion of the company’s life from 1919 to 1944.

Of course the most interesting part of these checks are the amounts on them, the actual pay workers were making for a weeks worth of work at the mine. While the numbers grow from decade to decade – as you would expect – the sizes to begin with aren’t incredibly large to begin with. In 1919, for instance, weekly pay for David Patroo (I think, the signature is hard to read) was an impressive $9.38. For today’s standard 40 hr week that would work out to a pay rate of about a quarter an hour. Of course in 1919 there was no such thing as a 40 hour work week, the average was closer to 50 hrs.

My wife found this interesting chart over on the state of Michigan’s DNR website (thanks dear!). The chart lists average pay for various copper mining occupations for the year 1924. From the chart you can see that the average pay is about $25 a week, with the richest folk – miners – taking home over $30. That’s a far cry from the living wage of today, that’s for sure.

Of course the world of today and that of the Copper Country in 1924 are light years apart. While its workers may be making only dollars a day, their daily costs of living were relatively cheap – even by the standards of the 1920’s. Mine companies had an invested interest to keep costs low, starting with highly affordable housing that cost only a few dollars a month. While the company stores of coal mines were notorious for ripping of its customers, the company store at Painesdale was there to keep costs low through company subsidized competition. There was also other benefits like free health care, cheap heating fuel, and company provided utilities. You would be amazed on how far $9 a week could go.

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  1. According to an inflation calculator which I found, $30/week in 1924 is “approximately” the same as $379.15/week in today’s dollars. Not great, but it does make for easier comparison.

  2. Makes one wonder when Copper Range changed to checks for payroll from cash. I’ve always had the impression that throughout most of the pre-WW II period, that most organizations still paid in cash. Further—as I think about it—one of the most distinctive features of the C&H General Office building are the triple payroll windows located along the northeast corner of the building. Heck, for that matter, I was an involuntary member of the U. S. Army in the late 60s/early 70s and can distinctly recall that at that time they also (still) paid the troops in cash.

  3. Good example of the inflation – or is it the devaluation – of the dollar! I started at $1.80 per hour in a factory in 1965. After college I was a voluntary member of the BIG GREEN PLEASURE MACHINE and did alright on E-4 and E-5 pay. During grad school a $500/month job supported 3 of us in 1972-3. $9,000+/year in 1974. Onward and upward, we bought the 1st house in 1977. By 2009 when I retired I was making over 10X of ’74. In 1920 when my Great-grandfather left C&H he was a contract miner who owned his own car but had lived in a company house. When he arrived in Kenosha, he bought a lot and built a house. My paternal Grandfather left Germany in 1892 and arrived (with a wife and 8 kids) at the Anthracite mines in PA.. By 1913 the owned a farm outside of Kenosha. The Putrich family of Seeberville fame came to own their own home in Illinois. The folks of that era, aside from the working conditions underground and fewer toys, weren’t any worse off than we are today. Some of us work or worked more hours than they did.

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