March is the month of my birth – a month of spring, passionate politics, and women’s history!!! Let’s begin with a recent story from the New York Times on the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 which killed 129 female factory workers.
This story is so important to me, not only because it’s one of the first facts I learned about women’s history, but because it reveals how “women’s history” isn’t just a collection of facts about women – it’s everyone’s history. This fire and the massive amount of deaths had an incredible effect on worker’s rights and factory conditions for all workers – men and women alike.
Cornell University has a really knowledgeable website on the fire, with a collection of original documents, secondary sources, photos, memoirs and more. Let’s hear a summary of the incident from them:
The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
This incident has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. To many, its horrors epitomize the extremes of industrialism.
The Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart of Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops.Even though many workers toiled under one roof in the Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners subcontracted much work to individuals who hired the hands and pocketed a portion of the profits. Subcontractors could pay the workers whatever rates they wanted, often extremely low. The owners supposedly never knew the rates paid to the workers, nor did they know exactly how many workers were employed at their factory at any given point. Such a system led to exploitation…
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.
According to the New York Times, Michael Hirsch, an amateur genealogist and historian, helped attach names to the six “unknowns” whose unidentified remains were found at the fire.
NYT journalist Joseph Berger states:
The fire was a wrenching event in New York’s history, one that had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics and the beginning of the New Deal two decades later…
The day the six unidentified victims were buried was the culmination of the city’s outpouring of grief; hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turned out in a driving rain for a symbolic funeral procession sponsored by labor unions and other organizations, while hundreds of thousands more watched from the sidewalks.
I love history.