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.