Coal miner's birdcages still show up in vintage/antique auctions and estate sales. These nearly forgotten relics are from a time when the coal-miner's best friend, the canary, would signify the quality of the air...
Canaries (and Birdcages) in the Coal Mines
To alert the coal miners of dangerous methane or carbon monoxide build-up, men throughout the 1800s would bring caged canaries into the mines with them. Housed within small wooden cages that have a unsettling resemblance to the modern baby crib, the birds were a safety device for the miners. They would reside alongside the miners as they labored away, singing and chirping merrily. Their presence and cheery song provided a living testimony to the satisfactory quality of the air. But their death could be just minutes away.
Canaries have very sensitive respiratory systems and are quick to succumb to toxic and noxious gases seeping from the earth. This is why canaries were the choice for companion animal in the mines. While a human would become disoriented and drowsy over a longer period of time and eventually quietly succumb, the otherwise noisy and boisterous canary would perish much more quickly. It was this fact that served as an alarm to evacuate from a mine. If the caged bird is found dead, an ordered evacuation of the mine ensued. The caged canaries saved many a miner's life with the exchange of their own.
In all likelihood, many such caged birds would be brought into the mine accompanying almost every miner in their daily labors. Miners working a vein of coal just dozens of feet apart probably required their own personal 'canary alarm.' A dead canary alert from anyone was the signal for all to evacuate.
Antique Coal Miner's Birdcage
I am still searching for copyright-free images to use to show the actual miner's birdcage. Sometimes these cages turn up on auction and selling sites like eBay and sites like Worthpoint, which featured a coal miner's birdcage in May 2008, and another in 2009.
The cages themselves are the subject I am interested in. When our family moved to the farmstead where my father still resides in the 1960s, the farm and property was in extreme disuse and decline. Just a shadow of its former heritage days, the yard was overrun with tall weeds, bushes, and the wooden-shingled roofs of the house and associated buildings were all moss-covered. The roof leaked and the floors were creaky. There were many smaller gardener sheds and vehicle parking garages on the property, presumably for farm equipment, all crammed full of furniture and machinery. It was like a junk dealer's stockyard.
Although the house had inside plumbing, there was still a classic wooden outhouse behind the home. Even for the 1960s, this home was seemingly trapped in a time from decades earlier.
Behind the old garage was a modest tinkerer/blacksmith shop filled to capacity with old iron, steel and brass items, horse harnesses and tack. Tin and wrought iron implements that defied description were stuffed into cabinets and hanging on hooks. A quarter dozen ice-tongs for drafting sawed blocks of ice from a pond or river were present. -A required tool for harvesting ice blocks for use in 'ice boxes,' the for-runner of modern electric refrigerators.
Tools of the trades were cast about everywhere. There was a dilapidated 2-storey chicken hatchery nearby, then being used as a repository of old and deprecating furniture, housewares, old glass bottles, pottery and hundreds of other bric-a-brac. It was a favorite play place for us kids and most certainly to the worry of our parents for the misdeeds and accidents that could happen. It was the classic 'abandoned building' more familiar to the inner city ghetto.
Most of the old upholstered and torn (often bumblebee-infested) furniture would ultimately be hauled away, or incinerated locally just off-site.
Over the course of a number of years, the 'Old Black Chicken Coupe' as we called it was eventually leveled and the trash pile it left was hauled away piecemeal. Much of we boys' numerous tree house building materials over the years came from wood and nails salvaged from materials derived from the debris pile of The Old Black Chicken Coupe.
The cement foundation and base floor was eventually pushed behind the old barn and buried in a trench silo. Most the utilitarian objects had either decayed away or over the years, re-purposed as building materials elsewhere. Or, had been hauled away and consigned to the landfill.
Looking back now I can realize that hundreds of antique items were destroyed in what was then considered to be a just and righteous clean-up operation. These thoughts haunt me sometimes, the wealth of rural Americana that was present and obliterated just because it was inconvenient at the time to keep it around.
Wicker Baskets and Birdcages Galore
In the old cow barn in one of the unused backrooms were dozens upon dozens of wicker, reed and rattan baskets and chairs tossed into a closed room and sealed with a hinged door. Most of these baskets were just utilitarian wicker and reed baskets, suitable for collecting eggs, fruits from the orchard or wild berries from the fields. Other ornate baskets, hanging from nails overhead ceiling rafter beams were clearly funerary baskets for flower arrangements, retained for whatever nostalgic reason from the former occupants of the farm.
Some baskets still had dried and preserved flowers, dust covered; brown and crispy with extreme age. Nothing on that old farm seems to have ever been discarded, just hoarded away.
A Collection of Coal Miner's Birdcages
In this backroom of the old barn were also these innocuous-looking spindly wooden birdcages, each replete with a small clay pottery drinking vessel attached. They were just some of hundreds of strange and seemingly worthless junk stacked high in these backrooms of the old barn.
Graphic recreation by author of the typical clay pottery watering cup for a coal miner's birdcage.
Each pottery has a tab with hole for attaching to the inside of the miner's birdcage via one of the vertical dowels. These watering pots are approximately 2 inches tall by 1 1/2-inches wide, vary in color, shape and texture often with a glazed interior surface. Handmade, no two are exactly alike.
These seemingly unimportant wicker bird cages were destined one by one to be crushed underfoot and have their clay pottery torn free and used as target practice for my older brother and myself. We had no idea what these cages were meant for. A bird cage obviously, but deemed to be unimportant. We didn't care; it was the delicate pottery object that we sought for our BB-gun target practice. To mitigate our boredom many a clay pottery perished atop of a fencepost during our BB-rifle target practice.
I only recently found out what these cages actually were; they were for detection of air-quality in coal-mining! Now I became intensely interested. There is to my knowledge no coal mines nearby, -so why were coal miner's birdcages stored here? Were these being made here? Was this old farm a hub of commerce in the history of the state? It's a veritable mystery!
Mass-produced, but each miner's birdcage was clearly unique. Some bore the ink stamp "Made in Germany" to show its origin. Other cages that show up in auction still retain remnants of a blue and yellow adhesive paper sticker indicating its origin as being from the "Just Right" Company, featuring a depiction of a yellow songbird on a branch and sheet music blowing in the wind.
My Early Draft graphic of How to Build a Coal Miner's Birdcage
An end panel of my proposed 'Build a Miner's Birdcage' blueprints
These miner's birdcages still turn up on estate sales and auctions. Increasingly rare, they are becoming harder to find. I seek to acquire at least one such miner's birdcage for show, the genuine article. As an amateur wood crafter myself, I might even make a reproduction model based upon the design specifications. Apparently these birdcages were drafted from several different designs for the widths, height and even the configuration of some various other critical aspects can vary notably between different specimens.
In the meantime however, I am gathering selected hardwood boards and small gauge dowel rods in an effort to make my own version of a miner's birdcage. It is my intention to recreate an reproduction antique miner's birdcage and if possible, using no nails or screws.
Already I am beginning to deeply appreciate the work and craftsmanship that went into the production of these original cages. It will not atone for the shared guilt and remorse of having destroyed so many as a youth but it will ease my conscience slightly to have one in my possession to cherish and protect.
UPDATE: Coal Miner's Birdcage Teaser
I am definitely going to attempt to recreate one or more of these vintage coal miner's birdcages. I have been gathering supplies and writing down dimensions of these from sources online. Today I built my first prototype, one of the end pieces of the coal miner's birdcage.
The wood used is all hardwoods (oak, hickory, etc.) recycled from discarded dresser drawers. The pieces are held together by wooden dowels and glue. The retaining dowel pins (marked by black arrows) will be sanded smooth. The 1/8th inch vertical dowel rods are contemporary purchased products for this project. Some of measurements are a little bit off... Practice will improve my craft.
While no nails were used so far, they would be permitted in this project. Some genuine coal miner's birdcages did in fact use small nails to hold certain parts such as the feed box together.