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:

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