If anything about the Diesel era appeals to me, it’s the era’s characteristic future-focused attitude. Even in the midst of Depression, there existed a determination, a hope that better times were just around the corner, and a stubborn refusal to lie down and give up on the future. But that was all borne out of the tragedies and excesses of the previous decades, where the adolescence of the Industrial Age gave rise to unchecked growth and overreach. Our science fiction literary tradition has a consistent way of holding up a mirror to our progress and asking, “is this the route we wish to take?” Only rarely do we heed these cautionary words and recognize them for what they are.
One such tragedy was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire somewhere around the 9th floor. Within half an hour, 146 people were dead. Most of them were young women and recent immigrants to the country held up to the world as the Land of Opportunity.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was, to put it bluntly, a sweatshop. These workers had no recourse for grievances, no guarantee of safe working conditions, and often no idea how dangerous and unfair their situation was. Until sometime around closing time on March 25.
The top floors of the Asch building, where the factory was located, caught fire near closing time. In a matter of minutes, the unsafe conditions led to 146 deaths. Many of these victims jumped 9 stories out of windows to their deaths rather than burn alive when they realized the doors to the stairs leading down were locked by a management suspicious of theft.
What moved people about the Triangle Fire was that Triangle, tragic as it was, was not unique. Sweatshops abounded. Workers had few rights and even fewer protections. Speaking out about unsafe conditions and unfair labor practices could get you fired. Organizing in your workplace could get you killed (I have a future post about the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which unionized coal miners faced off against sheriffs and mining company militia in southern West Virginia over the right to organize).
In spite of a criminal trial and several civil suits, the owners of the factory were acquitted of wrongdoing amidst public outrage. The owners eventually settled the civil suits. The price for a human life? Seventy-five dollars and no admission of wrongdoing.
In subsequent years, the owners were brought to trial twice more, where their practice of locking the factory doors during work hours prompted a fine of twenty dollars and an apology from the judge. The garbage-ridden factory floor riddled with fire hazards the second time earned them a stern warning.
Now, these fine, upstanding pieces of humanity were no strangers to the benefits of disorganized labor. Go ahead and enjoy this account, written by Pauline Newman, of her time as a child laborer at Triangle Shirtwaist.
Despite the lack of justice for the victims of the Triangle fire, the public cried out for reform. Trade unions and reformers pressured the government into enacting legislation improving and regulating working conditions, fire codes, and labor regulations at the local and state levels that would go on to inspire federal reform decades later as part of the New Deal.
Cornell University has a fascinating memorial and information site for the Triangle Fire, expanded for the centennial that includes primary sources, transcripts, and interviews with survivors, along with a heartbreaking list of the victims, the youngest of which is a 14 year -old girl.
I’d like to say we learned from our excesses. With worker protections in place, trade unions and regulations, the US began to prosper again. A hundred years later, we still remember the Triangle Fire as a horrible, preventable tragedy borne from greed. Have we learned from our history, or are we doomed to repeat it?