YMHC #9: Education and household decision‑making in Spanish mining communities, 1877–1924 – by A. M. Palacios


In this issue, Adrian Mateo Palacios (Post-doc at University of Zaragoza) presents a part of his doctoral research about education and household economy in Spanish mining communities.

Go to YMHC previous issues.


Education and household decision‑making in Spanish mining communities, 1877–1924

by Adrian Palacios-Mateo (Universidad de Zaragoza, apalacios@unizar.es)

The mining industry had, and still has, a complex relationship with human capital formation. While miners have been usually classified as unskilled and illiterate (see for instance Mitch 1992 and Humphries 2013), other authors have praised the cutting-edge technology developed and implemented by the sector since the application of steam engines in coal mines in the 18th century in the United Kingdom (Nuvolari and Verspagen 2009; Nuvolari et al. 2011; Silvestre 2021). Moreover, on some occasions, the windfall revenues from the industry have led to an increase in public expenditure on public services, such as schools (Maurer 2019). However, a chaotic development of these infrastructures and facilities, or the child labour demand of the sector sometimes annul these advantages in mining towns (see for instance Pérez-Fuentes Hernández 2004).

In order to understand the relationship between the mining sector and human capital formation, I use a highly detailed dataset with information for 254,000 individuals from Spanish population censuses from 1877 to 1924. From this database, I use individual information for around 42,000 girls and boys from eight to 18 years old, and besides this data, their parents and family composition characteristics are also included. Thus, the purpose of this study is threefold. First, I will try to shed some light on how the mining industry affected human capital formation, with a precise look at micro-level data. Second, the study of mining families is also relevant because of the low living conditions that they had in the Spanish mining sector (Escudero Gutiérrez and Pérez Castroviejo 2010; and Pérez de Perceval Verde et al. 2016). Therefore, as miners’ wages were often not enough to support their families, children were frequently needed to bring in an extra income, which prevented them from attending school, which would be reflected in the results. Finally, the differentiation between boys and girls will depict how mining families treated children’s education according to gender in comparison with other elite and working-class families.

In order to have a broader understanding of the effect of being in a mining family on children’s education, different mining towns have been selected. The municipalities used are represented in Map 1, and covered the coal mines in Asturias, iron mines in Cantabria and the Basque Country, the lead mines in Murcia and Almeria, and the copper mines of Huelva. Moreover, due to the important difference in literacy levels and education provision (see for instance Reher 2022 or Nuñez 1992), a separate analysis is made for those individuals in Northern and Southern Spain.

Map 1. Location of the studied mining towns.

Note: The shaded areas are the area of the municipality and the names in italics are the Spanish provinces.

Note: The shaded areas are the area of the municipality and the names in italics are the Spanish provinces.

Thus, this study shows how living standards were affecting the education of boys and girls, with a special emphasis on mining families. Besides the regional division, mining families were classified according to the type of mine where they worked, either an open pit or an underground mine. This is because of the different skill requirements and child labour engagement in the two different mines. For instance, in 1909 the Spanish government supervisor of the labour inspection department argued that banning children from underground mines would lead to the disappearance of adult skilled miners. However, in open-pit mines, unskilled and non-previous miners were as able as experienced miners. Thus, in underground mines, child labour should be higher, while in open-pit mines unskilled adults were prevalent, although children could also be employed, as adult miners’ wages were lower due to the low skill requirements in these mines.

Following an econometric analysis, the results show an interesting result in mining families. While working-class families in the Northern towns analysed had a significant gender bias, they tended to educate more their sons than their daughters, northern open-pit mining families present the higher gap in the study. Girls in these families had a chance of being literate around 46.2%, while their brothers had 66.4%. This also happened in southern open-pit mining families, with a gender gap of 16 percentage points, being the only social group where an educational gender gap was present in Southern families.

As the econometric analysis allows me to control for several factors such as origin, age or the number of siblings, among other characteristics, I argue that this gender gap could come from the low living standards of mining families. The lower wages of open-pit miners led to prioritising the scarce resource of the family in sons’ education. As girls had lower returns in the job market if they were literate, this prevented mining families to invest in their education. Moreover, as Pérez-Fuentes Hernández (2004) argues for Biscay, women in mining towns, although not directly employed in the mines, could do other formal or informal jobs to complement the head of the household’s wage in the mines. For instance, the boarding house system, which was widespread in the open-pit towns analysed here, relied heavily on adult and young women tasks, which could prevent schooling for the latter.

In conclusion, this study tries to disentangle the dynamics that living standards had on mining families. The results show that, due to their living conditions, the lower wages in open-pit mines were translated into a significant gender bias in education, neglecting girls’ education. However, some other explorations could be derived from this analysis. For instance, it will be interesting to see how the job market and job prospects affected these decisions, such as a textile industry where women could work, or a steel industry where the literate and skilled sons of miners could avoid the mine. Therefore, it would be interesting to follow the offspring of miners into adulthood, to better understand the role of education in their job prospects and the persistence of being a miner in the next generation. Similarly, a deeper comparison with other unskilled workers, such as landless labourers, or unskilled industrial workers might be interesting to understand if the patterns highlighted here were exclusive to mining families or were common for other working-class families in other towns.


Escudero, A., & Pérez Castroviejo, P. (2010). The living standard of miners in Biscay (1876-1936): Wages, the Human Development Index and Height. Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, vol. 28, no. 3, 503-534.
Humphries, J. (2013). Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution. The Economic History Review, vol. 66, no. 2, 395-418.
Maurer, S. E. (2019). Oil discoveries and Education provision in Postbellum South. Economics of Educaiton Review, vol. 73.
Mitch, D. F. (1992). The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England: The Influence of Private Choice and Public Policy. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Nuñez, C. E. (1992). La Fuente de la riqueza. Educación y desarrollo económico en la España Contemporanea. Madrid, Spain: Alianza Editorial, S.A.
Nuvolari, A., & Verspagen, B. (2009). Technical choice, innovation, and British steam engineering, 1800-50. The Economic History Review, vol.62, no. 3, 685-710.
Nuvolari, A., Verspagen, B., & Tunzelmann, N. v. (2011). The early diffusion of the steam engine in Britain, 1700–1800: a reappraisal. Cliometrica, vol. 5, no. 3, 291-321.
Pérez de Perceval Verde, M. Á., Martínez-Carrión, J. M., & Martínez-Soto, Á. P. (2016). Biological Welfare and Inequality During the Mining Boom: Rio Tinto, 1832-1935. Revista de Historia Industrial, no. 64, 149-181.
Pérez-Fuentes Hernández, P. (2004). “Ganadores de Pan” y “Amas de Casa”. Otra mirada sobre la industrialización vasca. Bilbao, Spain: Universidad del País Vasco, Servicio Editorial.
Reher, D. (2022). Patterns of Literacy in Historic Spain: An Interpretation. Revista de Historia Económica / Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, 1-35.
Silvestre, J. (2021). Productivity, Mortality, and Technology in European and US Coal Mining, 1800-1913. EHES Working Paper, no. 205.

Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2023, January 31). YMHC #9: Education and household decision‑making in Spanish mining communities, 1877–1924 – by A. M. Palacios. Labour In Mining. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwec

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