[October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that tragedy and four other historic fires, leading up to a somber special post on our current crops of horrific wildfires.]
On two well-established legacies of and one evolving question about a horrific industrial disaster.
The March 25th, 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory led to the deaths of 146 garment workers, some as young as fourteen years old, making it one of the most deadly and tragic industrial disasters in American history. A number of factors came together to make the fire as destructive as it was: the factory was on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Greenwich Village Asch Building, and inadequate methods of communication meant that for at least those workers on the 9th floor news of the fire literally arrived at the same time that the fire itself did; the factory’s owners kept many of the doors to stairwells and exits locked in order to prevent both theft and unauthorized breaks, leading many workers to jump to their deaths from windows rather than wait to be killed in the fire; the building’s one exterior fire escape was in terrible shape and perhaps already broken, and collapsed during the fire, sending at least twenty workers to their deaths; and so on. Yet while the particular combination of such contexts and events produced the fire’s strikingly high number of fatalities, it’s entirely accurate to say that each of those individual factors was representative of trends across the nation’s industrial sector in the period (and for many decades prior), the recognition of which in the fire’s aftermath led to a number of important legacies and changes.
Those legacies can be roughly divided into two main categories: workplace safety regulations and labor activism. The safety issues were investigated first by a New York State Committee on Public Safety (headed by Frances Perkins, the sociologist and activist who would go on to serve as FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet) and then by the newly created Factory Investigating Commission (chaired by State and future U.S. Senator Robert Wagner and future NY Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith). These two efforts produced nearly forty influential state laws and numerous other workplace safety recommendations and changes. At the same time, the labor movement responded to the fire with vigor and sustained activism; on April 2nd, just a week after the fire, socialist and feminist union leader Rose Schneiderman gave a speech at the city’s Metropolitan Opera House to members of the Women’s Trade Union League, arguing that “the only way [working people] can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.” In the subsequent months and years, it was the relatively new but rapidly expanding International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) that most directly took up that charge, fighting for factory and sweatshop workers around the country. Indeed, it’d be impossible to separate the legislative and legal advances from the presence and role of these labor activists, and it’s most accurate to say that the two forms of response to the fire went hand-in-hand.
Those safety and labor responses and changes represent the most clear and enduring legacy of the Triangle fire. But as a public AmericanStudies scholar interested in our national collective memories, I would argue that the question of how to remember the fire is another important, and certainly still evolving, one. Many of those conversations were centered on, as were the initial efforts of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition (formed in 2008), the 2011 Centennial, a hugely prominent event that featured contributions and speeches from then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis among many other luminaries. Yet as important as such an individual moment for memory is, it’s vital to think about longer-term and more lasting ways to add histories like the Triangle fire into our national memories and narratives. The Coalition is working to build a permanent public art Triangle Fire Memorial in Lower Manhattan; those efforts remain in their early stages and I’m sure could benefit from any and all ideas and contributions, fellow AmericanStudiers. But as big of a fan as I am of public art memorials, I would also stress that 21st century collective memories are created at least as much in digital, multimedia, and educational spaces and communities. How to better include a horrific disaster like the Triangle fire in those kinds of collective conversations remains, both specifically and generally, an open and evolving question, I’d say.
Next fire tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fires or other historic disasters you’d analyze?