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!

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