YMHC #3 : Food in mining : some notes from Mediterranean cases – by F. Sanna

The third issue of the series Young Mining Historian Corner is online!

In this issue, Francesca Sanna (post-doc, Université Paris Est-Créteil) presents some notes about food and consomption among miners in 20th century (Mediterranean and France). The aim of this post is to offer a general overview and some ideas for futher research in this field.

Go to previous issues.


Food and consomption studies represent a dynamic field of research in history and social sciences [1]. Historians discovered relatively late that food can be an excellent prism to observe social practices. In particular, labor history had little interest in food at work, which has long been kept outside the scope of the analysis of labor relations [2]. However, the growing interest for food as a source of knowledge about popular habits and uses attracts more and more labor historians interested in the “little things” of daily life, in household economy, standards of living or in health and occupational diseases issues.  In fact, the study of workers’ diet could give some useful insights about stardards of living, health and material culture of workers, their families and communities.  Thus, the study of workers’ diet reveals some aspects that go beyond the merely nutritional issue, crossing the field of social and labour history [3].

Food in Mining

The study of the miners’ diet have become a useful entry to study multiple aspects of mining world. In economic history, using a quantitative approach, data about food supplies and products have usually served to study standards of living, by estimating the average baskets or budgets or the caloric intake of daily meals [4]. A qualitative approach, more linked to cultural studies and anthropology, helped to show the singularity of local diets and the links to more ancient eating habits [5]. The comparison of local diets in different mining areas can also reveal links between mining community and their territory, or underline common patterns, especially related to mining, as a social and technical environment.

What do miners eat? Different diets, similar quality.

Multiple studies conducted in different mining areas agreed on the fact that food is generally of little variety and of poor nutritional value, not adapted to the energetic requirements of mining occupation. This lack of nutritional quality had negative effects on mining population, which was much more exposed to gastrointestinal complications and other illnesses related to malnutrition, with a particular risk for children. The dominant trend in food supply was to stock up on the cheapest products available, so fruit, bread and common vegetables like potatoes and pulses formed part of the daily diet of all the miners. Another central element of the miner’s diet, quite common in Europe and linked to the rural diet, was the use of onions. On the contrary, cooking fats’ variety establishes a quite common north/south divergence, with the use of oil in the southern countries and butter in the northern ones. Wine and beer consumption shows a similar pattern, but in this cas the north/south fronteer is much more nuanced. However the use of lard or animal fat, like pork one, seems to be more common in all european areas, probably due to rural origins of miners. Those aspects are related to the question of pluriactivity of miners, as a structure of mediterranean mining labour until the second half of the 20th century, beetween agricultural origins and industrial transition of their territories [6].  In the Mediterranean areas, miners could sometimes have acces to a larger variety of vegetables, like tomatoes and carrots, or citrus fruits. 

Table 1: Comparative table of food items (20th century, Italy-Spain-France)

Sources: personal elaboration from archival sources

Sources: personal elaboration from archival sources

It is also important to notice that diets could vary depending on the local environment: the proximity of the seaside or mountains is a resource for enriching daily diet with meat, fish or venison, wild berries, roots or herbs. Thus, the study of diets can provide a rich insight on miners’ side-activities or cultural habits. For exemple, in the case of the greek mines of Laurion, located in the south of Attica, near the seaside, miners testified the practice of fishery to improve the quality of their diet. In the italian mines of the south-western Sardinia, a montagnous area, it was common to go hunting for small animals like jackrabbits or partridges, for miners to consume, conserve or exchange for other products with local peasants [7]. 

The study of eating habits also give some information about the proximity or the progressive alienation of miners from their origins, traditional habits or even the influence of migration and displacement. Interestingly, in some places, miners’ diet distinguished from the local or rural one, due to the access to foreign products or recipes. For exemple, in the andalusian mines of Peñarroya, the local diet was influenced by French cuisine, due to the origine of Peñarroya multinational mining company.  Miners were used to eat potato and grape soup, pickled anchovies, cod and spinach stew. In Linares, where some english company were established, miners were used to drink beer, which was less common than wine in the area [8]. 

Where to eat ? Lunch-breaks between public and private spaces. 

Miners working underground usually consumed their meals down in the pit. For that reason, lunchbreaks were arranged to fit working and environmental conditions (and restrictions: no alchool allowed in the mines!).  The meals were usually homemade and had to be easily transportable and well stowed in lunchbox,  which went underground with the miner in a shoulder bag. Materiality and tipology of food thus reflects both personal habits and structure of labour. To this extent, the lunchbox is a very common object, quite symbolic indeed, and its incorporation in the material culture of mining workers is testified by language: every community had his own term to define this special and important item for miners’ survival. 

Image 1: Miners’ lunch-break (South-west Sardinia, 2nd half of 20th century)

Source: private collection

Lunch-breaks were moments of sociability among miners. Meals at work were never consumed alone, but lunch-time was quite short. Undoubtely those were occasions for sharing opinions, expressing emotions, resting and complaining about fatigue at work. But not too much: surveillants were always around. Those were also moments to share the same food miners ate: a clove of orange or a slice of sausage, a sip of water. In 20th century (at different times according to companies and laws), social or company’s canteens began to appear in mining sites. Canteens wre places where social relationships were crystallised. They thus represent a singular prism to observe relations and sociability, associated to the deployment of company authority and control [1]. When meals in the company canteen replaced the homemade food, we observe a shift in habits and uses: everyone consumed the same meal, prepared by the same cook. There was no more singularity in this shared materiality. In some ways, this change could reflect an acceleration in the transition from the rurality to industry, from the pluriactivity to the industrial specialisation of mining worker.

How to supply in food ? Between companies’ control and communities’ networks

Supply networks are particularly interesting to study the economic system of mining communities, particularly in company towns. Much of the food consumed came from local markets set up in the villages. It was also common to find gardens and chicken coops in the dwellings, which allowed the inhabitants to supplement their diet with vegetables and meat. Those gardens were usually provided by mining company, associated with housing. Their value as an alternative source of supply depended on the orientation of the paternalistic policy of the company. As we already noticed, miners could also buy, exchange or receive supplies by their familiar networks and social relations, or by taking advantage from the local environment. 

However, one of the most common food supplier was the mining company itself. Due to a certain isolation of mining sites, the company store or canteen was one of the first services appearing in mining villages or neighbourhood. The study of mining companies policies about food and consumption provides useful information about the social aspect of the organisation of labour, meaning social control, and paternalism. In fact, literature shows that the store is one of the core elements of company control strategy on mining communities [9].  

Where the mining company controlled all the shops, prices could be set in order to fit different paternalistic strategies. Usually, the scope was to create a relation of economic dependence beetween the worker and the company. For exemple, high prices (that could even double the local price of the same products) forced miners to spend all their salary in company stores, especially when mining sites where isolated or far from local villages, and to buy on credit. Food supplies were usually the highest item of expenditure for miners, (except for housing, if not provided). Sometimes the company operated in the opposite way, offering lower prices and discounts on some basic items like bread, milk or sugar, in order to attract more workers, or to maintain social control and prevent the organisation of leagues and trade unions. This strategies could be reinforced by using the truck system (which was sometimes abolished or restricted by law in many european countries). 

Food could also become part of a hygienic propaganda, focusing on how it was transformed and used at home. The idea was that living conditions, consumption and eating habits, determinates the performance at work. This propaganda targetted especially women, which were called to participate to social activities like cooking lessons, in order to learn how to become a good woman/wife/mother, and so to contribute to the worker’s performance.

The battles for food: strikes, struggles and negociations

Food as an historical object could provide a good entry to study social struggles, strikes and negociations between workers, companies or public institutions. In fact, as the problem of subsistence and food quality was frequently a source of complaint among workers, it could have represented a motivation to unite in organised movements. 

One of the main reasons of discontent among miners was the problem of food supply. It is wide known that the direct or indirect control of distribution and sale by employers was primary exerced on prices. Where the company did not control all the stores, it could always look for ways to get the local shopkeepers to set their prices at a non-competitive level and limit sales on credit. Literature show that in multiple case, and not only in mining, shopkeepers usually became a target for protesters, as symbols of company’s oppression [10].  

This power over food economy and consuption could also be used to threaten workers or to break strikes and protests. For exemple, in the mines of Raibl, in the north-east of Italy, during a strke the 1950s, the company decided to increase the price of milk at the company store: this was considerd as a retaliatory action, targeting the basic items of miners’ daily diet [11]. 

Miners’ resistance to this power could materialize itself in direct or indirect forms. Resistance means insubordination to rules imposed to private life, to moralistic propaganda or medical surveillance. Resistance can be seen in the persistance of traditional habits like pluriactivity between the mine and other occupations, or in the development of alternative economic networks to company towns, allowing miners to escape the restricted supply systems of mining companies.  However, resistance appears also in the persistance of traditional habits, recipes or local products, used in opposition to the new products proposed by the company in stores and shops. 


The various forms of miners’ eating habits invite us to reexamine the image of mining labour and industrial environment. The mix of food supply sources testifies the dynamic relation between the dependence model created by mining companies and the exit strategies of mining communities, and their links to the natural and social environment. The variety of logics of control, supervision and power do not only concern working time and paternalistic policies, but also the very materiality of food and its relation within the working worlds [12]. From quantitative or qualitative perspective, supply systems, quality of food, type of goods and consomption habits can give useful information about health and social pratices among miners, communities’ networks and social relations.

This field of study is quite rich in monographs and regional analysis, but it lacks of more global or comparative and multi-scale overviews. However, an effort in this direction could help historians to link micro-analysis to a transnational perspective and to have a broader view on the transformation of mining world in a long term.  


[1] Aymard M., Cl. Grignon, Sabban F. (éd.), Le temps de manger: alimentation, emploi du temps et rythmes sociaux, Paris, Ed. de la Maison des sciences de l’homme / Institut national de la recherche agronomique, 1993

[2] L’alimentation au travail depuis le milieu du XIXe siècle, Le Mouvement Social 2014/2 (n° 247)

[3]  M. Bruegel (ed.), A Cultural History of Food in the Age of Empire (1800-1900), vol. 5 de F. Parasecoli et P. Scholliers (eds.), A Cultural History of Food, Londres ;
New York, Berg, 2012.

[4] For exemple Antonio Escudero, Carlos Barciela, “Niveles de vida en la minería española (1870-1913) : historiografía y nuevos enfoques e hipótesis” in Xavier Huetz de Lemps, Jean-Philippe Luis (dir.), Sortir du labyrinthe, Collection de la Casa de Velázquez, 131, Madrid, 2012, p. 89–126.

[5] For exemple: P. Raggi, “L’alimentation des mineurs de fond en France après 1945” in Thomas Bouchet, Stéphane Gacon, François Jarrige, François-Xavier Nérard et Xavier Vigna, La gamelle et l’outil. Manger au travail en France et en Europe de la fin du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours, Arbre bleu éditions, 2016, p. 265-279.

[6] Aron Cohen, « Paysans et mineurs. Quelques repères sur la mine comme agent de mutations sociales dans le monde rural andalou (XIXe-XXe siècles) », Cahiers de civilisation espagnole contemporaine, n. 2, 2015, online .

[7] F. Sanna, “La famille et l’OST : effets divergents de la rationalisation dans l’industrie minière de l’Europe du Sud dans l’entre-deux-guerres “, The Historical Review, 2018, online

[8] J. Sierra Álvarez, “Rough Characters”. Mineros, alcohol y violencia en el Linares de finales del siglo XIX”, No. 19 (Spring – Summer, 1994), pp. 77-96.

[9] Ad Knotter, « Mining », in Karin Hofmeester, Marcel van der Linden (dir.), Handbook Global History of Work, Oldenbourg, De Gruyter, 2018, p. 237–258.

[10] We cannot ignore the links with more ancient protests targetting shopkeepers and intermediaries, like the one described by E.P. Thompson against millers. 

[11] Giordano Sivini, Il banchiere del Papa e la sua miniera. Lotte operaie nel villaggio minerario di Cave del Predil, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009, p. 143.

[12] D. Oddy, “Food, Drink and Nutrition”, in F. M. L. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, vol. 2, p. 251-278

Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2022, January 27). YMHC #3 : Food in mining : some notes from Mediterranean cases – by F. Sanna. Labour In Mining. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwd2

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  1. 03/02/2022

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