Remnants of Medieval feudalism in Copper Country social hierarchies of the 20th century

The European social class system established in the Middle Ages did not disappear with the onset of industrialization or republic democracy.

The dominant class system of Medieval Europe consisted of the upper class, who were monarchs, nobles, and the upper clergy (Pope, bishops, abbots). The middle class was made up of merchants, doctors, and lower clergy (deacons, priests), while the lower class consisted of peasants and serfs. It was a complicated system, because within the hierarchy, there was also the Feudal system, which positioned members of the higher class in substrata.

The class system in the United States was influenced by Great Britain and similar enough that 19th and early 20th century immigrants from eastern and southern Europe recognized it, and informed the ideals of the socialist movement of the time.

Forming unions to organize labor, the strikes of the period were similar in intent to England’s 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

The peasants were stirred over a range of issues, such as unsustainable pay, high taxes, and immutable ties to land owned by feudal lords and to the church. The peasants, of course, lost.

The immigrants from Europe, particularly Italy and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, had left their native countries for many of the same reasons that had sparked the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

However, they found themselves similarly situated in the early 20th century Copper Country, where the upper class consisted of mine superintendents, managers, mining captains and shift bosses. In addition to ruling over mining companies, many mine superintendents and their underlings also served on county and township boards.

The middle class still consisted of doctors, business owners, professors, and administrators, while the lower classes, the peasants, and the serfs, consisted of trammers, road crew workers, sawyers, and miners – unskilled labor.

At Calumet and Hecla, the class system was more obvious. Employees often rented a home from the company or built one on land leased from the company. In either case, employees were still tied to the land owned by the company in much the same way peasants and serfs were bound to the land owned by the feudal lords.

In France, the revolution, which began in 1787, was a period of radical political and social change that was partially inspired by the American revolution against Great Britain. In France, the revolution ended the feudal system, along with the lives of the feudal lords, and restructured society.

In the United States, revolution overhauled Great Britain’s rule and allowed the newly fashioned republic to govern themselves.

As with the rest of the nation, Copper Country residents had freedoms afforded by this social restructuring not granted in most of Europe.

Self-improvement, or upward mobility, was among them. Many immigrants earned more money in the lower income positions in the mines than they had ever seen as members of the European working class. The increased income provided the means by which they could start a business of their own, get out of the working class and move into the middle class.

Another marked difference between the United States and the feudal nations of Europe was public education.

While it is true that the mining companies of the Copper Country did invest in the building and equipping of schools, it is also true that once built and equipped, they were leased to the local school districts to run as they saw fit.

It was this type of paternalism that afforded Copper Country children among the best education American public schools had to offer. Whether working class, middle class or upper class, children were educated. It is also true, however, that advanced education was largely reserved for children of the middle and upper classes.

These differences were discerned by the cultural offerings available to residents. For the upper and middle classes, there were theaters that offered dramatic theatrical plays, operas, balls, and orchestral entertainment. These were the events requiring proper coats and ties, gowns, gloves, and some education in high culture. These were the events held at the Calumet and the Kerredge Theaters, where one main floor seat cost a day’s wages.

For the lower classes there were vaudeville theaters, where a seat cost a nickel or a dime and provided audience members with a mix of farce comedy, song and dance.

There were also public dances, usually with music provided by a mining company-hosted band. While it is difficult to imagine the management of the Champion, Quincy or C&H mines at a vaudeville show or public dance, it may be easier to imagine that socially, the working class enjoyed themselves in such environs.

The working class had more freedoms and were not bound by the constraints necessary to emulating the culture of the European ruling classes.

While thousands of migrants left their homeland to escape land grabs and military conscription to die for the expansion of empires, whether they could speak a common language or not – whether they had come from Bosnia or Saxony, they understood the plight of the lower class and sought to live in harmony as one community, far away from the suppression of the Medieval feudal system that the ruling class refused to let die.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today