Friday, March 25, 2011

$75 dollars a person: The 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an industrial disaster that claimed the lives of 146 workers. Most of the workers were immigrant women; some were mere teenagers. Ida Brodsky, for example, was a 15 year old Jewish girl from Russia who was only in the United States for 9 months. Jennie Stellino was a 16 year old Italian girl who immigrated four years before. Lizzie Adler was a Romanian of 24 years of age in the United States for less than four months. She must have arrived around Christmas. This is just a small sampling. There were married women, some men, and even native born Americans, but the majority were single, young, immigrant women. They were there to collect their pay on a Saturday when the fire struck. In only took 18 minutes for the fire to to sweep through the factory with its devastating fury. Those who survived suffered injuries, some of which were severe. And, since the company burned, they were all out of work.

The fire was so deadly because the workers could not escape the building fast enough. Doors and windows were locked contrary to New York City ordinance. It was a truly horrific scene.

The most immediate impact was the snuffing out of young lives not yet lived and the loss of family supportive family members at a time when many struggled to make ends meet in a way imperceptible to the middle class in America today. Teenagers like Ida Brodsy should have been in school, not working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Then there were the married workers killed. Now their spouses and children would have to struggle without them. Unions and the Red Cross stepped in to assist the injured, unemployed, and shocked.

There were also deeper effects of the fire. New York City adopted a series of regulations, including banning smoking in factories. The New York State Legislature, which just suffered a fire of its own when the their library burned down a week later, created a Factory Investigating Commission (FIC) to examine working conditions throughout the state. Over time the FIC would recommend a long list of regulations ranging from smoking in factories to the size of windows to sprinklers that the State adopted, thus creating a comprehensive code of safety. As an aside, the New York State Legislature of the time was perhaps the most talented state legislature of all time. Its members included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Alfred E. Smith, and Robert Wagner, just to name the three most illustrious members.

What about he factory owners who locked their doors in clear violation of New York City code? They were acquitted. It could not be proven they had knowledge of the locked doors. They were sued in civil court where they could not escape so easily. And the outcome of that? They paid $75 for each death!

I strongly recommend the commemoration site created by Cornell University. It has some great documents, links, photographs, etc. Here is the link:

Thursday, March 24, 2011


I never heard of culturomics before I read the article "Loneliness and Freedom" by Anthony Grafton in the American Association's Perspectives magazine. For those who don't know, Grafton is the president of the AHA. Two Harvard scientists, Erez Lieberman-Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel downloaded the texts of over 5 million digitized books from Google Books, tagged dates to the text, so they can search their data with high speed, advanced search engines. The term culturnomics means the study of culture with a statistical metric to measure. I see an amazing potential using this material because it can add some scientific validity through its use of statistics. Now, 5 million books is a lot, but there is no guarantee that this is spread evenly across time periods and subject. There are probably gaps. I don't think there are too many comic books or pulp fiction books on google yet. Thus if one wanted to study popular literature of the 1950s, there are two good sources unavailable. For the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, however, the sample might be better. There is already a ton of stuff on the period because it is already in the public domain. Now we just have to think of how to use it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Welcome to the Dynamo and the Virgin

I guess it is true that to blog one must love blogs in the same sense that to write one must love to read. Since I started my blog, which I confess was more on a whim than according to some master plan, I have been paying closer attention to the content, form, and structure of other blogs. There is one thing I have noticed about the blogs I like best and the ones that seem to be most frequented by visitors: they tend to be tightly focused on a particular subject. There are a ton of Civil War blogs and quite a few good ones (my favorites include Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Book Shelf, Brooks Simpson’s Cross Roads, and Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory), Military History blogs (I really like Steven Terjeson’s WWII History and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval History Blog) and blogs focused mostly on the history profession itself (I highly recommend Nick Sarantakes’s In the Service of Clio and Ann Little’s Historiann). Then there are other areas where one blog really stands out. Intellectual History, run and maintained by thirteen individuals, is one of my favorites, although I don’t consider myself an intellectual historian. My friend Pat McNamara’s, aptly titled McNamara’s Blog covers New York City Irish Catholic religious history, another area that is outside my field in many ways, but one that speaks to my own heritage. Perhaps my favorite among the niche blogs is Mark Cheatam’s Jacksonian America, which has an excellent balance in output frequency, length of entries, variety of entries within the subject, with some postings on professional matters. Bearing all this in mind I noticed my blog tended to be scattershot with a variety of topics from events in the middle east to books on ancient Rome and Egypt to Chester Arthur to my great-great-great grandfather, but most, although not obviously all, connect to my favorite time period: the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the time ranging from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression. When I recently searched the internet and discovered that blogosphere has largely overlooked this important era in our nation’s history, I found I had the solution to my dilemma. From this point forward, Greg’s History Blog will focus on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Having solved the question over focus or mission for this blog, the next question that logically arose is what would be an appropriate name for a blog rededicated to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. After more than two months thought the one that I kept coming back to was a chapter title from The Education of Henry Adams: “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” The Dynamo is the powerful machine running relentlessly, producing energy without any sense of how it would be used. The energy creates great power but it is also of an amoral sort. In other words, what good does it do? Adams, a morose and intelligent man, who sensed a futility in life bordering on nihilism, could understand the machine. It seems clear to me that the Dynamo for Adams represents the America of his day, a place he neither understood nor approved. He can appreciate the raw power of the industrial growth, but not understand it or the amoral consequences. The Virgin represents art, desire, sex, and other human emotions alien to the dynamo. Adams clearly appreciated these traits, but felt equally uncomfortable in the face of the accompanying raw emotion, superstition, and religiosity (he refers to it as “occult”) of the era. Yet, when he decided he had to pick between the two worlds, his own and the past, he choose the distant past as the one he could easiest understand. Personally, I like the title, because it captures so many traits from the period: determination, growth, power, the relentless drive forward, naivety, self satisfaction, moral certainty, and sense of superiority.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Robert Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln's Biography

Like most American historians, I love reading about Abraham Lincoln. On a recent trip to the library I loaded my book bag with two volumes of Hay and Nicolay’s biography of Lincoln and the Hidden Lincoln, an edited volume of letters to and from William Herndon concerning his own biography of Lincoln. Hay, Herndon, and Nicolay all knew Lincoln quite well, but their works gave different views of their former friend and boss. Hay and Nicolay focused mostly on the 16th president’s political career portrayed a wiser man than Herndon’s more earthy personal account. Obviously they saw different versions of Lincoln. Nicolay and Hay saw him in the White House as the Chief Executive of the land during a time of war. Herndon, on the other hand, saw Lincoln as a lawyer relating directly to clients, building a practice, and participating in the gritty life of a frontier lawyer. But that was not all. A big factor in their alternative viewpoints was the attitude of Robert Todd Lincoln, the former president’s only surviving child.

For those who don’t know Robert Todd Lincoln led a distinguished career after his father’s assassination. He served as Secretary of War under Presidents Garfield and Arthur (1881-1885) where the younger Lincoln proved an able administrator who worked to increase pay and streamline the cooperation between the state militias and the war departments. For the most part, he practiced a restrained hand when dealing with the Native Americans. Later, under President Benjamin Harrison, he served as Minster to the Court of St. James (1889-1893), a fancy way of saying he was our ambassador to Great Britain. Later he remained a stalwart conservative Republican and admonished Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 for associating Abraham Lincoln to the Bull Moose New Nationalism program. Lincoln backed Taft in 1912.

Despite his admirable career, Robert Todd Lincoln could never escape his heritage. He seems to have thought that had he gone to Ford’s Theater on the fateful night of the assassination in April 1865 he might have prevented it. He comes across as a dour and overly serious man lacking any of his father’s famous sense of humor. This was never more so than the manner in which he treated his father’s papers. Robert kept them from all prying eyes, except for Hay and Nicolay whom he encouraged to provide what was in effect an authorized biography of his murdered father. He quashed Herndon’s efforts, even going so far as personally buying copies in bulk and destroying them in order to keep them out of the public hands. He pressured Charles Scribner’s Sons against issuing Herndon’s biography. Another publisher took on the task but made serious edits to the material in order to appease Lincoln. He truly believed that the Hay and Nicolay biography would be the final word and no other would be necessary. In this he was continuously frustrated. He used his influence to keep Lord Charnwood out of the Massachusetts Historical Society and steadfastly refused to allow Senator Albert Beveridge, among others access to the papers. When he finally donated the Lincoln papers to the Library of Congress in 1919 he stipulated that no one could see them without his authorization while he was alive and then no one could see them for another 21 years after his death.

Why was Robert Lincoln so secretive or protective? His biographer John Goff suggests that Robert was a thorough Victorian who saw nothing proper with any investigation of his father’s private life. Herndon, of course, exacerbated this by alleging that Abraham was not a legitimate son of Thomas Lincoln and other such personal comments that had nothing to do with his political life and presidency. For that reason, Robert wanted to scare off biographers. He also probably destroyed some Lincoln family papers. Several people ranging from his own grand daughter to friends recalled seeing him burning papers at the same time that the Lincoln papers were in the room. The Lincoln papers (which have been digitized and are available on the Library of Congress website) do not have many personal letters between the family among them. It is quite likely that Robert Todd Lincoln destroyed those papers he considered to personal and left behind only those dealing with Abraham’s professional life.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two Down One To Go

Just finished The Girl Who Played with Fire but Steig Larsson. It is the second book of his wildly popular millennium trilogy. I read the first installment, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, over a year ago. Both were fast paced and full of suspense. I anticpate the next one will be as well. In fact, I won't wait a year to read it. A couple of observations. After reading the two books I wonder why the Swedes always seem to have their cell phones (they call them mobiles) off. Of course, this happens at the worst possible time. I never turn mine off, and it seems to defeat the purpose of having a cell if it is off most of the time. There is a lot of violence against women, but it is usually followed with some sort of vigilante justice. One wonders why Stieg Larsson felt so inclined to portray men in such a poor light. In fact, most of the men are total jerks, if not worse. Larsson, however, is no prude. There is lots of sex (although nothing graphic) and everyone seems to be happy until one of the jerk men show up and ruin everything. Again, this treatement of men leaves me wondering what was going on in Larsson's head. Finally, none of the adults seem to have children. The plots seem a little fantastical to me, but, then again, most do. I guess I want to see in a novel is something I can relate to in my own life, and Larsson's books are certainly outside the realm of possibility on many different levels. Maybe I lead a boring and pedestrian life, but I am not complaining. It is just that this series is pure entertainment (and there is nothing wrong with that) that, so far at least, has not departed any life lessons to me. But it still was a very enjoyable and fun read!

On another note, I will be re-christening the blog next week. If possible, I will also rename it, but the address should remain the same. There will be seperate announcement message.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Revolution in the Air

Tunis, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and the question everyone asks is: where will popular democratic uprisings strike next? Will these demonstrations remained confined to the Middle East or will they spread to China and the Americas? Most importantly, what will be the long-term effects of these uprisings? Will the Jurassic park of aged, tyrannical dictators of the Middle East be replaced by groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who would implement their own restrictions on freedom and liberty and advocate policies hostile to American interests, or will genuine democratic institutions take root? It is too early to tell for sure.

This is not the first time there has been a transnational wave of rebellion. In the 1820s, nearly the entire continents of Central and South America freed themselves from Spanish imperial rule. In faraway Europe the Greeks revolted against their Ottoman oppressors. These revolutions prompted President James Monroe to issue his famous “doctrine” as part of his annual message to Congress (what we today call the State of the Union) in 1823. In effect, Monroe wanted to recognize that once a nation freed itself from its imperial overlord it should remain free.

Then in 1830 there were more transnational protest and rebellion in Europe. The powers of the French monarchy (restored after the downfall of Napoleon) were greatly curtailed and Belgium gained its independence.

Then in 1848 a massive wave of popular uprisings struck the heart of Europe. These liberal, pro-democratic, nationalistic, and anti-monarchical rebellions have much in common with the affairs of the Middle East today. In the end, the results of 1848 proved disappointing. Although they instituted some reforms, the reactionary monarchs remained in power. The greatest failure of 1848 occurred in Germany where the drive for a liberal based unification failed. It was Bismarck’s Blood and Iron (with a good deal of gold) that unified the nation under a strong Prussian monarch, not exactly a democracy. No doubt global history would have been different if the unification of 1848 had succeeded.

The most recent transnational revolts occurred in the late twentieth century. There were waves of anti-imperialist revolts all through Asia and Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1960s as the European empires centuries old crumbled. In 1968 protests against unpopular governmental policies hit both sides of the Iron Curtain, in communist and capitalist country alike, from the United States to France to Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, waves of popular protests bought down the communist puppet dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe and even tore down the Berlin Wall itself. That is the only one I remember and it was a truly inspiring moment.