Sunday, March 25, 2012

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 25, 1911

There are times as a history lover that I am reminded that very few people care about history. And honestly, it’s a bit lonely.

While I doubt all of my history knowledge will be interesting to everyone, I usually only nerd out when I know the information is pertinent to a conversation, or will enlighten the person I am telling the fact to.

Of all my random facts, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire fact is my personal favorite random fact. I told two co-workers about the event recently, and had two totally different reactions: one was interested, the other… seemed to fake interest.

High school is really when I discovered my passion for history. Junior year of high school I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and what it really meant for our country. I remember the day really vividly: My teacher was being critiqued, and so he was a little more rigid than usual. But he had spoken with such passion, and tied together the ideals so beautifully, I felt that at the end of the lecture I really understood this event.

What many probably don’t know is this event was crucial for our country, and the way people approached public safety. It was also a turning point in ideology.

The beginning of the Twentieth Century was termed “The Gilded Age” because while it was the Golden Age for immigration, the country was really not as golden as it seamed from far away. Three prominent mentalities were creating harsh and cruel working conditions for the newly industrialized country:

• Social Darwinism was the idea reflecting Darwin’s theory: survival of the fittest. If someone was weak, they should not be helped, but weeded out of society;

• Popular Calvinism was the religious ideology of the time, focused on the idea of predestination. Every person’s actions were pre destined by a higher being, meaning intervention was useless; and

• Constitutional conservatism was the idea of “liberty of contract” or the 14th Amendment. You work because you choose to work, but must maintain the contract at all costs.

The working class in America felt the full brunt of these ideologies. They lived in poor living conditions, working factory jobs that exploited them in wages, hours and in safety. The worst part of this is because of these ideologies, the elite in America felt that it was the fault of these people that they lived and worked in these conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire changed all of these mentalities. Basically, the factory housing hundreds of young women caught fire. Keep in mind this was before labor laws regulating working hours, working conditions, or minimum wage.

Women who were unable to escape the building simply jumped from the burning building, dying from the fall.

The inside of the factory after the fire.

Next time you are in a public place, notice the doors open out. It is a small detail people rarely notice, but it is a fire code so that if a fire were to break out, people could easily push the doors open and flood out. In the time of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the doors did not open out, the opened into the room, and hundreds of women were flooding against the doors, making it impossible to open the door to escape. Hundreds of women died in this fire, trapped inside the factory. The sheer magnitude of this disaster helped change the way society thought about working conditions, and about the working individuals as well. The Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era, dominated by three different ideals:

• Social gospel was the idea of a social response and socialized permeating society. The main idea was to bring Heaven to Earth;

• Reform Darwinism where man does not live in a state of nature, but rather in an artificial nature where natural law does not apply; and

• Legal Pragmatism where it was the idea of promoting the Great American Ideas. Balance principle and value vs. the common god and impact on society.

This is one of those facts that I think a lot of people rarely think of. Changes across other industries slowly began to happen after this point. And every time I notice a door opening in, which does happen in historic buildings, I think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

As always, Happy History!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


I have found that sometimes it is not what you know, but who you know that will get you places in this world. Sherry was in charge of the lab on our site, and she processed everything we found on the site, whether it was a large mortar stone, or a small shurd of pottery. Not only was she fantastic in the lab, and had a wealth of knowledge at her disposal, she is one of the nicest people I have ever had the fortune of knowing.

When we visited Maresha we had the pleasure of having Sherry take us on a tour of the site. Maybe that is what helped add to the appeal of the site, the personal connection I had because I was given a tour by someone who was passionate about the place, who dedicated years to excavating there, who loved learning about it, and who shared that passion with all of us.

In addition to seeing the main part of Maresha, Sherry also took us to visit a place dubbed the Horse Cave. This cave held a special meaning to Sherry, who overlooked the excavations that went on in the cave, and who wrote her graduate thesis about the cave.

Although called the horse cave, Sherry’s argument was it was a place of worship for those who were part of the religion Mithraism, a growing religion at the turn of the century. Mithraism should ring a bell, because I mentioned it in my winter solstice post; I think it was interesting for me to see it pop up there, after touching the surface of the religion when Sherry showed us her cave.

That got me thinking about what the religion actually involved. It was limited to men, and during the Roman rule it spread to, first to the men in the army, than to others in the Roman Empire.

As previously stated, Mithraism derives from the Persian religion Zoroastrianism. (I honestly have no idea how Zoroastrianism works, but one of my professors compared it to Lord of the Rings, with good and evil influences... take that description as you will.) Mithraism is a religion dedicated to Mithra, God of light and wisdom for Romans, and contracts and oaths for Persians. The slaying of a bull is also central to Mithra.

Mithraism rapidly spread through the Roman Empire during the Second Century C.E. About 400 different sites have been found across the empire, extending from Turkey to Britain, most concentrated in Rome.

The religion is one of contracts and loyalty between men. There were no known women followers, and the religion was immensely popular. Members met in small caves for worship. While not all were caves, these temples were dug into the earth, and lacked exterior decoration. A communal meal was important to the religion, with all caves finding evidence of large dining quarters. There was an initiation into seven successive levels of the religion, some including ablutions (baptism), purifications and ceremonial passwords. A simulated death and resurrection was probably part of the ceremony. The levels were:

Raven (Murcury)
Nymphus (Venus)
Soldier (Mars)
Lion (Jupiter)
Persian (Moon)
Heliodromus (Sun)
Father (Saturn)

There are several similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, one being the celebration of Christmas on December 25. The idea of resurrection is also central to Mithraism.

Having Sherry there to give background on the site really made it one of my favorites to visit. Even now, thinking back to the site I still think fondly of that day, and having Sherry as our tour guide.

My camera died (shock!) so thanks to Kendra Day for the photos. Not as good as I would have liked, but you can see a bit of this temple and some of the structures there.