Scatter Tags, Anyone?

Until just a few months ago, I had no idea coal scatter tags even existed! Most of us have at least heard of coal scrip before, which are tokens of varying denominations that could only be used to pay for items at the company store. However, scatter tags are completely different. Most are made of aluminum or cardboard and are about the size of a quarter. They were mixed in with the coal as it was loaded on rail cars at the mine. Many coal mining companies used scatter tags with their branding on them as a form of advertisement from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. This allowed customers to recognize their preferred coal source since it all looked the same.

My collection of coal scatter tags in their display case.

How I first learned about coal scatter tags is an interesting story from one of our many trips to the Harlan, KY area. As I was metal detecting along an abandoned L&N mine spur, a curious local stopped and asked what I was looking for. I told him about my fascination with the area’s history and collecting railroad artifacts. He seemed very intrigued by this and told me about finding scatter tags along the railroad as a child. I probably had a puzzled expression on my face when I asked, “scatter tags, what are those!?” I was a bit shocked that something, apparently common in the early coal mining scene, could have evaded my ears for so long. Needless to say, most of my spare time in the coming days was spent researching what they were and how to find them. I think learning about scatter tags may have started something, because now I can’t seem to get enough!

Scatter tags found in Kentucky. Note the difference in quality.

If you are serious about collecting coal scatter tags and want to obtain a displayable collection, then you are probably better off purchasing them. Luckily, they are fairly inexpensive. If you prefer to be adventurous and find them, then that is also an option. Keep in mind that the scatter tags you find will likely not be the same quality as those you buy due to their prolonged exposure to the elements. But, should you choose to look for them, make sure to consider location and equipment. Always be mindful of not trespassing on private property or putting yourself in danger when deciding where to search. Remember that just because a railroad track appears abandoned does not always guarantee that it is. Do your research first with a reputable source. For equipment, you are going to need, at minimum, a functioning metal detector and something durable to dig with. A handheld pinpointer is also a good investment as it will guide you to an object’s precise location. We use an ACE 350 and AT Pro as primary metal detectors and also a Garrett pinpointer some refer to as a “carrot.”.

Below is a gallery of individual scatter tags from my collection. In the caption, you will find each respective mine’s location.