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Collier Life

Historically, the collier profession was not one for the faint of heart, as great skill was required in order to successfully maintain multiple charcoal hearths at one time for months on end[1]. Living alone, or occasionally with a son or an apprentice in small collier huts, colliers could not afford to lose concentration for even one moment, as the slightest wayward breeze or hole in the charcoal hearth could cause irreparable damage to the charcoal. There were exceptions to this, however, as some colliers lived near the furnaces which employed them in more permanent housing[2]. The collier's family sometimes lived with them in the housing[3]. The management of a furnace had to ensure that living quarters were available to all of their workmen. Some workers lived in homes they owned, while others rented houses from the furnace or local landlords. Rent for furnace houses usually cost $12 to $25 per year[4]. One such example of this can be identified in the 1860 Census of East Penn Township where John Bachman, a forty year old collier, was listed as living with his wife and eleven children, ages four months through nineteen years[5]. More information on John Bachman can be found on the Lives of Workers page. Another notable collier in the area was Joseph Johns (1794-1906). The collier's responsibilities did not begin until the wood the was to be burned had been sledded in from the wood chopper's ranks to the hearth. The collier was an important workman of the iron production process, controlling the quality and quantity of the furnace product[6].

The quality of charcoal was important to colliers' livelihood as high quality charcoal, charcoal that was strong, compact and heavy[7], fetched higher prices[8]. The collier profession required almost constant twenty-four-hour surveillance of the hearths[1]. A dangerous role a collier may have needed to perform was called "jumping the pit." This crucial job required a collier to climb onto the hearth and place additional wood into any "soft spots" in the pile[9]. If anything went awry, the collier risked falling into the smoldering charcoal fire[10]. While making charcoal, colliers lived in the woods in roughly constructed collier huts[11]. During the winter months, colliers became woodcutters in order to get a full-years wage, as the ideal season for charcoal production was during the warmer months of the year[12]. During the winter, the collier would cut billets and lapwood in preparation for the summer. They also used their time in the winter months to create baskets that were woven with thin strips of lath or reeds around an oval hoop. These baskets were then used for carrying leaves and anywhere from 2-½ to 3 bushels of charcoal[13]. Wood cut in April would typically contain 10 to 20 percent more water than wood that was cut in January[14]. Woodcutters were paid by the cord; some would try to deceive the system by loosely piling their billets or stacking them over stumps to falsely increase the volume[15]. Often, the colliers lived at the site of production for months at a time, from late May to October. During the summer they lived in crude wood huts in areas with many insects. A master collier and one or two helpers "coaled" together, working as many as eight or nine pits at a time. They often wore long sleeves and pants, so as to protect them from the already volatile elements. Colliers bought relatively little food from the company store, leading to reason they must have raised or harvested much of what they ate. There were records of sales of melons, potatoes, turnips, turkeys, pork, veal, beef, mutton, shad, herring, mackerel, pickles, peaches, sweet potatoes, beans, cherries, and cabbage. Corn meal was a regular item of store purchase before 1808 and seldom appeared after that. Rye and wheat flour were the more common bases for baked items in later years. Sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, salt, pepper, and spices were kept in regular stock at the store. Preserving of meat was a problem for colliers before freezing was available[16]. Master Colliers had one or two helpers that coaled together[17].

To begin the process of making charcoal, a collier first cleared his hearth of all vegetation that had grown there since the last time the tract had been coaled (possibly up to thirty years before) and raked out all the old dust to its edges. The collier also used several tools during the process. The collier would make a ladder by notching an 8 inch log that was long enough to reach from the ground to the head[18]. Another tool used by the collier was a crude wooden rake, made of six or seven 6-inch teeth placed about 2 inches apart in a small head, which was used to gather up the leaves on the forest floor. After the leaves were raked, they were collected into the collier's handmade basket so they could be scattered on the pit. A long handled collier's shovel was used to spread the dust on the pit. Just a small twist of the wrist while using the shovel spread the dust evenly, ensuring all parts of the pit were covered[19]. Charcoal wagons were used to transport the charcoal. These wagons had high sideboards and a bottom that pulled out and held between 100 to 300 bushels of coal and were drawn by six-mule teams.

Collier Pay

Colliers were paid for their charring approximately $1.12-$1.25 per one hundred bushels of charcoal[20]. According to Walker[21], colliers at Hopewell Furnace in Birdsboro, PA made a monthly pay between $8.62-$20.62 in 1805-1807, $16.00-$23.00 in 1818-1820, $13.50-$18.00 in 1825-1827 and 1835-1837 and $17.50-$24.00 in 1851-1853. In order to better understand how much this is worth, we can convert this to modern amounts using Measuring Worth[22]. For example, if we just adjust for inflation, $8.62 in 1805 is equivalent to $194.00 today (2019). That is an incomplete picture, however, because it does not take into account economic growth. "Relative labor earnings" is a better measure because it compares the wage to the average wage from the two time periods[23]. Using this measure,[24] $8.62 in 1805 would be more like getting paid between $3,110.00 (unskilled labor) to $5,940.00 (skilled labor) today (2019). Similarly, $17.50 in 1835 would have a "relative labor earnings" value of $5,170.00 (unskilled) and $10,500.00 (skilled). This suggests that, relative to today, colliers were relatively well paid. Indeed, at the Dale Furnace in 1799, only the Manager of the Furnace was paid more per month (9 pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence or approximately $300.00/ year)than the "coaler" or collier (8 pounds). Even the furnace keeper, the individual responsible for the operation of the furnace, earned less than the colliers[25]. This is not quite as true between 1836-40 at the Hampton Furnace (Hereford Township, PA), when the colliers earned $17.50 compared to $25.00 for the keeper[26]. Cuts were made from the Colliers pay if the load was to small and/or the sticks weren't thoroughly charred [27]. The collier was a very important person in the iron making process, since he was the one who controlled the quality of the charcoal used for firing the furnace [28]. The work was time consuming and required a lot of physical labor, and many of the Collier's originally came looking to make money by finding iron ore to make into iron.[29]. During the coaling the pits could not be neglected, so the collier was on constant duty, only eating or sleeping when the work allowed him to[30].


  1. Straka and Ramer 2010, 60
  2. Walker 1966,238
  3. Walker 1966, 109
  4. Walker 1966, 99
  5. United States Census, 1860
  6. Kemper 1941, 16
  7. Walker 1966,240
  8. Straka 2014, 106
  9. Straka and Ramer 2010, 60
  10. Straka and Ramer 2010, 60
  11. Walker 1966, 242
  12. Kemper 1941, 10
  13. Kemper 1941, 16
  14. Overman 1854, 80
  15. Walker 1966, 239
  16. Walker 1966, 111
  17. Kemper 1941
  18. Kemper 1941, 16
  19. Kemper 1941, 18
  20. Overman 1854, 117
  21. Walker 1966, 261
  22. measuringworth
  23. measuringworth
  24. measuringworth
  25. Gemmell 1949, 91
  26. Gemmell 1949, 95
  27. Walker 1966
  28. Walker 1966,240
  29. Kemper 1941, 2
  30. Walker 1966, 245


  • Agriculture and Rural economy – Charcoal → . 2010. The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library. [2]. Originally published as "Agriculture et économie rustique – Charbon de bois," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 1 (plates) (Paris, 1762).
  • Gemmell, Alfred. 1949. The Charcoal Iron Industry in the Perkiomen Valley. Norristown, PA.: Hartenstine Printing House.
  • Kemper, Jackson. 1941. American Charcoal Making in the Era of the Cold-Blast Furnace. History 14. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior; National Park Service.
  • Overman, Frederick. 1854. The Manufacture of Iron, in all its Various Branches (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: Baird. [3]
  • Straka, Thomas J., and Wayne C. Ramer. 2010. History on the Road: Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. Forest History Today Spring/Fall: 58–62.[4]
  • Straka, Thomas J. 2014. Historic Charcoal Production in the US and Forest Depletion: Development of Production Parameters. Advances in Historical Studies: 104-114.[5]
  • Svedelius, G., Joseph Leonard W. Nicodemus, and Björn R. Anderson. 1875. Hand-book for Charcoal Burners. New York: Wiley. [6]
  • United States Census, 1860, database with images, FamilySearch [7] : 24 March 2017, Pennsylvania > Carbon > East Penn Township > image 2 of 22; from "1860 U.S. Federal Census - Population," database, ( : n.d.); citing NARA microfilm publication M653 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  • Walker, Joseph E. 1966. Hopewell Village; a Social and Economic History of an Iron-Making Community. Philadelphia,: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.