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Exploring Primary Sources: Coal in Kentucky Exercise

This module serves as an introduction to primary source research through investigation and evaluation of documents related to the coal industry in Kentucky.


Organizations and advocates use print materials to influence public opinion and perception. Whether it is a pamphlet, publication, or employee safety manual, print materials convey meaning through their format, the language used, and method and location of distribution. Organizers used strong language to elicit sympathy and attention for mining conditions and unionization. Coal companies framed mine safety as the responsibility and patriotic duty of miners.  

Below are two examples of flyers calling for strikes and marches, and two examples of line-drawing flyers that were attached to or on the reverse of miners’ pay stubs. As you review the materials, focus on the language used and the intended goal and audience. Discuss with your group where the responsibility of miner safety is placed, and how this ties into the importance of organizing. 


Brainstorm. List 10-20 words or phrases about the documents/items. (Start with the details of the documents, like topic, names, publication, etc. What do you find interesting? Strange? Do you find anything appealing or disturbing? Things you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with?)

Articulating Problems. Formulate 2-4 possible problems that could be developed from the above list of words and description of materials. (Problems can be found by looking for tensions between ideas, conflicts between your own experience and what the text/image presents, assumptions underlying the arguments of the text/item, or if you notice any gaps or missing information overlooked by the source).

Focus questions:

Bias:  Identify some biases in play. What do we know or what can we infer about the creators of these documents? Whose perspective is represented? 

Context: Think about the when and why of this primary source. What makes this a valuable resource to the topic?

Power: What power relationships can you identify in the materials? Try to think in terms of format in addition to content.

Language: How are these topics and perspectives sensationalized through the language used? Identify some key words or phrases that are meant to elicit strong reactions.

Reflections: What can we learn from these materials? How is our understanding of the topic enhanced through these materials?

Materials: Strike & safety related flyers

"March to Pineville" strike flyer

From the Herndon J Evans Collection.

Heading reads,

Call to strike flyer

From the Herndon J Evans Collection.

Headline reads,

"144 Killed! 5760 Injured!" miner safety flyer

From the Sherrill Martin papers collection. 

Headline reads,

"Having trouble miner?" flyer

From the Sherrill Martin papers collection.

Line drawing depicting soldier in foxhole, below drawing reads,