Triangle Shirtwaist Factory: one hundred years on
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
The victims were, for the most part, young women – Italian and Jewish immigrants - who worked six days a week, for what we can be assured was a pittance, cutting, stitching, and finishing shirtwaist blouses. The death count was 146, and they died for a lot of different reasons: because the fire engine ladders didn’t reach beyond six floor, and Triangle was on floors eight through ten; because an exit door was locked (to prevent theft); because a flimsy fire escape collapsed.
In what was an eerie pre-cursor to the final hours of the World Trade Center towers, just a few blocks and 90 years away, many of those who died jumped to avoid being burned to death.
The owners were acquitted of criminal charges, but in a civil action against them, the families of the victims were each given $75.
Even in 1911 terms, that wasn’t a whole lot of value placed on a human life. MeasuringWorth has a calculator that computes relative values, and the range they offer for the worth of $75 in 1911 in 2009 terms (the last year they have available) extends from a low of $1,320 (calculated based on the GDP deflator) to a high of $30,800 (based on relative share of GDP). Frankly, relative share of GDP sounds way too high, since those on the lower end of the economic food change don’t exactly capture a relative share of GDP. So I’ll go with the eye-ball of the mean/median values, which is in the $8K – $9K range.
Not much for the life of a 17-23 year old girl, however miserable her life, limited her prospects and broken her English.
Let’s hope that at least some of the money went to bring over a few more greenhorns, or help put someone’s brother through City College, or buy medicine for a sick baby.
Although a couple of years later, one of Triangle’s owners was still locking the factory doors – at $75 per capita, it must have still been worth the risk - Triangle Shirtwaist led to safety laws, and to a surge in the union movement (which did, lest we forget, lead to an awful lot of good things).
Fast forward those hundred years, and we don’t have Triangle Shirtwaist factories anymore. There are still garment-district sweatshops that exploit poor immigrant labor, but most of the stitching jobs are now overseas. They’re in countries that, for the most part, don’t have any laws against Triangle Shirtwaist-style operations. And, thousands of miles away from wherever our blouses are made, we don’t have to worry about having to watch most of the workers who produce our stuff jumping out of 10th story windows (metaphorically speaking). Unless we happen to live in American communities that still house hazardous jobs like those in meat packing plants and coal mines.
For most of us, when it comes to the unpleasant matters of production, it’s blessedly out of sight…
It’s interesting to note that 1911 was by no means the last of the Great American Fires.
Just ticking off the ones I know of:
The Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942 killed nearly 500 people (including some neighbors of my aunt and uncle). Well over a hundred perished a couple of years later in the Hartford circus fire, when the “big top” – treated with paraffin and gasoline to waterproof it – went up in flames. (Should waterproofing really be the opposite of fireproofing?) Far more recently, the Station House fire in Providence killed 100 concert goers.
What all of these tragic events had in common was that they occurred because there were poor regulations, or no regulations, or ignored regulations.
If there’s any widespread evidence that a completely unfettered market able to dedicate itself to unimpeded pursuit of profit will look out for much of anyone and anything other than Number One, I’ve yet to see it.
Business will weigh risk and reward, and if that old devil reward outweighs risk – especially when the physical risk is to you, not them – well, we know which way that cookie is going to crumble. If all it’s going to cost them is a measly $75/per (metaphorically speaking) to take care of it, what they hey? Life in Bhopal’s supposed to be nasty, brutish, and short, no?
So today, let’s remember Lizzie Adler and Ignazia Bellotta, Rosie Cerrito and Rose Feibush, Esther Goldfield and Esther Goldstein, Kate Leone and Rosalie Maltese – who were both just 14. And everyone else who’s died because greed trumped (someone else’s) life.
Most info on Triangle shirtwaist came from Wikipedia, as did info on the Hartford circus fire. I trusted my memory on Coconut Grove and Station House.
List of victims and the photo came from the University of Missouri – Kansas City – law school site.
P.S. Don’t mourn, organize!