Coal, wrote the Philadelphia historian Nathaniel Burt, “has been a dirty business in every sense of the word.” Yet until very recently, few people could live without it. The appalling human and environmental cost of extracting this filthy black rock from the bowels of the Earth was tolerated for centuries— first for coal’s unrivaled ability to generate warmth in the winter, then for powering the steam that drove iron mills and railroads, and lately for generating electricity. As recently as 20 years ago, coal power produced half the electricity in the US; even today its share is almost one-third. Try living even one day without electricity and you will appreciate humanity’s long addiction to this messy commodity.
Andrea Krupp, the longtime conservator at The Library Company, is the exception who sees beyond the muck. As a visual artist, Krupp has somehow managed to discern beauty and even poetry in the mine shafts, coal carts, coal chutes, geological surveys, and even coal lumps themselves that most of us long ago condemned as blights upon the landscape.
Seeing Coal, Krupp’s current exhibit, takes a longer view: Coal’s “dynamic materiality,” she contends, “connects us to Deep Time and Nature. It reminds us of our own Earth origins and helps us re-vision how to live on a fragile and finite planet.” Whether you will agree after visiting this exhibit (in person or online) remains to be seen; but it does give one pause to reflect that Mother Earth devoted more than 200 million years to develop this product for our use. You can’t help but wonder: what else could Mother Earth have in store for us and our descendants?
Krupp has chosen to focus on anthracite—the world’s cleanest and most efficient form of coal. Less than one percent of America’s original coal reserve consisted of anthracite coal, almost all of which was located in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Yet this minute one percent constituted most of the entire world’s anthracite supply. Access to this high-grade coal was what transformed Philadelphia from a mercantile center dependent on foreign trade into a self-sufficient industrial powerhouse known by 1900 as “the workshop of the world.”
Anthracite is largely gone today, of course. But among the photos, posters, and old postcards displayed in Seeing Coal, you can actually touch and hold real pieces of anthracite. They’re not dirty at all, but clean and shiny, like black glass, or even diamonds. Which is actually not surprising: geologists theorize that if untapped coal reserves were left underground for hundreds of millions more years, the Earth’s pressure would eventually convert all that coal into diamonds. As you emerge onto Locust Street from Seeing Coal, you can’t help asking yourself: what would we do with all those sparkling beautiful diamonds? Which has been more useful, and therefore more valuable, to humanity: diamonds or coal?
Dan Rottenberg, founding editor of Broad Street Review, is the author of In the Kingdom of Coal, a narrative history of the US coal industry published by Routledge in 2003.