Appalachian Stereotypes and the Case of Cosmopolitan Coal Camps

Stereotypes about Appalachia, the largely mountainous region stretching 420 counties from New York to Mississippi, have abounded in the media for the past 150 years. Appalachia has been portrayed as a totally rural, homogenous region: a backwards, backwoods colony of poor white hillbillies lagging behind the rest of America in terms of moral, material, and social development. In truth, Appalachia is a diverse region, and the region’s troubles are largely linked to structural inequality at the hands of global capitalism and neoliberal policy, not inherent deficiencies in our people and landscapes. These historical stereotypes have lasting implications on public policies and perceptions, however. For example, in the wake of the presidential election, the region is once again the target of the media as a backward land out of sync with modernity, deserving pity or condemnation for our failure to measure up on the yardstick of national progress.


hillbilly postcard 1920s color


This narrative is quite old, and is strongly connected to the material artifacts of everyday life. Every few years, the media ‘discovers’ Appalachia’s backwardness and reminds us with fascination, pointing to material conditions in the region as proof. Geographer Ellen Churchill Semple entered the mountains of Letcher County, Kentucky where I work in 1901 and wrote at length about the material conditions of mountain life, setting the tone for a century of rhetoric to come. She pronounced Eastern Kentucky a “retarded civilization” and lamented that crude homemade goods dominated the typical cabin. She wrote:

“Only the iron stove with its few utensils, and some table knives, testified to any connection with the outside world.  …For nowhere else in modern times has that progressive Anglo Saxon race been so long and so completely subjected to retarding conditions; and at no other time could the ensuing result present so startling a contrast to the achievement of the same race elsewhere in the progressive 20th century.”[1]

Myths about paucity and isolation persist, though of nearly 3,000 19th and 20th century farmsteads, residences, and industrial archaeological sites in Appalachian Kentucky, virtually none conform to these depictions.[2] Appalachian Kentucky’s social and economic isolation has been grossly overestimated. We simply do not excavate “backwardness” from the archaeological record. Quite the opposite. Historic residential sites from coal camps to cities to farmsteads demonstrate that Kentuckians were firmly entrenched in the global market economy and active players in cosmopolitan national trends.

4H debate team 1934



Archaeology is uniquely positioned to challenge problematic representations and to raise new narratives altogether. I truly believe the emancipatory potential of material culture study is great, particularly when confronting a skewed historical record. Discussing diversity and agency throughout Appalachia’s history recognizes transformative power already here in the region, and recognizes people of color, immigrants, women, and children. My work takes me to eastern Kentucky’s coalfields to study company towns built and operated by bituminous corporations.[3] Coal is practically synonymous with Kentucky’s coalfield history, but narratives have largely ignored the aforementioned groups of people and their lives and have focused heavily on white male miners and barons of industry. Coalfield archaeology illuminates diverse everyday life and also debunks persistent myths, and I’d like to specifically challenge the myths about social isolation through household goods recovered from the Shop Hollow trash dump at Jenkins (ca. 1911-1940), a coal town in Letcher County.  Jenkins was built by the Consolidation Coal Company and was a beautiful, bustling metropolis of nearly 11,000 people during its golden age in the 1930s. Clarence Dotson, an elderly resident I interviewed, proudly proclaimed Jenkins was “the New York City of the mountains,” and explicitly told me that Jenkins had everything New York or any other big city did in terms of material culture[4].

PortraitGroup Portrait

Consolidation Coal considered women and children very important in reproducing the high quality of life at Jenkins.  Company doctors and nurses across the coalfields engaged in community reform promoting modern ideals about health, housekeeping, and beauty which were influenced by the rise of scientific medicine and the middle class. Consol’s nurses taught about health and hygiene, first aid, modern housekeeping, and aesthetics. Medicines, cosmetics, and feminine products are one of the largest groups of Jenkins artifacts recovered. Norma Jean Vaughn[5] and other oral history interviewees told me Jenkins women took great pride in their appearance and used many vogue cosmetics like Pond’s cold cream and Coty powder. Women also eagerly embraced new products marketed for health and hygiene, such as Zonite, which was originally marketed as a general antiseptic and household cleaner, much like Lysol.  Zonite was (alarmingly!) rebranded in the 1920s-1950s as a feminine douche.  The practice of douching hit its stride in the early 1920s, promoted by women’s magazines and healthcare professionals as ‘scientifically correct” hygiene for the modern woman, and advertisements even featured pictures of nurses and doctors! Several Zonite bottles were recovered from Jenkins suggesting that women eagerly jumped on the feminine hygiene bandwagon.  Laxatives also in rose in popularity among women consumers in the early 20th century, as savvy companies marked laxatives as mandatory products for correcting ‘women’s issues.’ Products like Pepsin Syrup, which shares a laxative ingredient with Pepsi Cola’s original formula, also suggest Jenkins residents were “moving” forward with the rest of the nation! Everyday products like cosmetics and cleansers give us a window into the lives of women in coal camps and help place their experiences at the forefront, and connect them to nationwide and worldwide social trends.

Interior of Building


Pepsin Syrup 1924 Ad Women- New York Evening Journal

zonite 1940s nurses CROPPED

Archaeology shows that residents of Appalachia were just as modern and fashionable as their counterparts in any other American city, firmly connected to progressive national trends and markets. Both artifacts and oral histories resist representations about Appalachian backwardness. Let’s look backwards to help move forward!

norma jean vaughn vanity mirror-0046

pepsin zonite cold cream-5557


[1] Semple, Ellen Churchill (1995 [1901]) The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains: A Study in Anthropogeography. In Appalachian Images in Popular and Folk Culture, ed. W.K. McNeil, 145-174. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.; For an infamous modern example of paucity and isolation rhetoric, see Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 shock journalism piece Children of the Mountains, which showcased rotting trailers and rotting teeth to reify these same stereotypes.

[2] See a great synthesis of Kentucky’s historic coalfield sites in McBride, Kim A. and W. Stephen McBride (2008) Historic Period. In The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update, Vol. 2., ed. D. Pollack, pp. 986-988. Kentucky Heritage Council State Historic Preservation Comprehensive Plan Report No. 3. Kentucky Heritage Council, Frankfort, Kentucky. Available online at

[3] See the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center’s Coal Camp Documentary Project, a collaborative documentary history project in Kentucky’s Appalachian counties online at, and also Komara, Zada and Shane Barton (2014) Materializing Appalachian Coal Towns: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology in the Coal Camp Documentary Project. Practicing Anthropology 36(4): 25-30.

[4] Dotson, Clarence. Interview by Zada Komara. Oral history interview on file at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, Lexington. Jenkins, Kentucky, April 4, 2014.

[5] Vaughn, Norma Jean. Interview by Zada Komara. Oral history interview on file at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky, Lexington. Jenkins, August 3, 2016.

By: Zada Komara

Student at University of Kentucky