Von Drehle, David. TRIANGLE: THE FIRE THAT CHANGED AMERICA

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October 23, 2014 by ethelfritha

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The more I read, the happier I am to live when I do.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the worst workplace disaster in New York City until 2001, occurred against a social and political backdrop almost unrecognizable by us. Of the two political parties, only the Republicans who followed Teddy Roosevelt’s example could be considered at all “progressive.” The Democratic party, embodied by that monstrous circlejerk Tammany Hall, was too busy hiring thugs to break up labor strikes and making sure their biggest contributors got to keep working six-year-olds for fourteen hours a day. Neither party would touch socialism–or anything that sort of looked like socialism, or reminded them of socialism in any way–with a 10-foot pole. Consequently, labor-formed unions were rarely tolerated in the workplace, and the “bosses” of the largely immigrant-driven factories had ultimate say in all matters.

That’s not really a problem in itself, so far as it goes. If the “bosses”–in this case, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory–had been careful to bear their employees’ basic well-being and safety in mind, perhaps there would have been no need for a so-called labor movement. But perhaps Blanck and Harris, immigrants themselves and graduates of the dreadful, soul-sucking sweatshops of the 1890s, supposed that there had been quite enough improvements made to factories since their tenure in them, thank you very much, and did not think they needed to make any further concessions to their workers. Perhaps they forgot that “better” doesn’t always mean “good.” Perhaps it never occurred to them that the city’s lax fire and safety protocols were clearly insufficient for anyone with common sense, particularly since fireproof buildings had been a fact since 1835. Or perhaps they really were the money-grubbing bastards that they were made out to be afterwards, and cared only about the fantastic amount of fire insurance they had taken out on their various factories.

Whatever the case, the fire that began in a scrap box on the ninth floor of the Asch building turned into an inferno that found factory workers desperately pounding on locked doors, pushing their way down a single narrow staircase, forced out onto a criminally inadequate fire escape (which led to nothing but a basement skylight and eventually collapsed, killing everyone), throwing themselves down the elevator shaft, and jumping out the windows. Many workers did manage to get to safety, either via stairs or out to the roof. But 146 people–mostly young women between the ages of 16 and 24–burned, suffocated, and fell to death.

Although the men were tried for manslaughter, the case was flimsy. Strange as it seems to us now, the only illegal thing Blanck and Harris had done was lock one of the doors–a common practice to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks. Everything else so fundamentally wrong with the factory was perfectly legal, even the insurance gymnastics and rather suspicious history of fires among their other factories.

What was worse, despite initial public outcry, the city seemed poised to forget about the disaster, as it had forgotten about so many other scandals and tragedies in the past. Many individual social reformers were eager to see improvements made; however, it was not until Tammany Hall decided that it had badly misgauged the attitude of its constituents (that is, the immigrants who populated these unsafe factories) that anything could be done.

After Tammany threw its weight behind factory reform, a spate of new bills were passed in the state legislature, including one which limited children from working any more than a 54-hour workweek.

The more I read of history, the happier I am to live when I do.

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