During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States saw drastic changes in the workplace and at home. The rise of a new economic order changed the way people worked, ran their businesses, and lived their lives. This new order rested on machines, large-scale production, and smokestack industries. Ways of working had to be reinvented, and people had to adjust. This was also a time of economic, political, and social change.
One particular group in American society who was overlooked was the working class and the poor. With a massive influx of European immigrants many areas in New York City became overcrowded. New York City neighborhoods faced a multitude of problems such as poor sanitation and crime. Because our American legal system is reactive rather than proactive no barriers or controls were put into place to help regulate monopolies, to end corruption that was taking place in politics, or to protect the underprivileged and working class individuals. Factories were unsafe, children were working rather than going to school, and the rich were getting rich on the backs of… the not so rich.
Historians refer to the period of change that occurred as the Progressive Era. Problems that were taking place in America were brought to the public’s attention by a powerful resource that is still used
today…the media. Photographic journalist Jacob Riis’s photos provided some insight into tenement life for the public. After looking at the photos the public demanded change. Many could not believe that people (many of them immigrants) were living in overcrowded tenements, of course, this overcrowding lead to unsanitary conditions, crime, and the potential for death due to the lack of proper fire prevention and codes to protect occupants.
When it came to working conditions in factories two events define the abuse of business owners and unsafe conditions. When the public read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair people were infuriated that the meatpacking industry was sending out meat to the public that had once been covered in rat shit and handled by workers who were not practicing proper sanitation methods while handling meat. Sinclair was trying to expose the trials and tribulations of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. He was quoted as saying “I aimed for the hearts of Americans and instead I hit them in the stomach.” His book, eventually lead to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, followed by the Food and Drug Administration, after a lengthy investigation.
While the public was upset by what they learned from Sinclair’s book the images from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire hit the hearts and minds of the people in New York City and others throughout the country. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took the lives of 146 people, mostly Jewish and Italian women who were as young as 16. The fire was well documented through the press. People were looking at pictures of families claiming their deceased family members, political cartoons made strong statements of the carelessness and neglect of business owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. Of course, when the smoke settled there were criminal as well as civil suits that followed with the judgment favoring the victim’s families and the punishment nothing but a slap on a wrist; and a slap on the wrist is being generous to the business owners who put more of a concern on profits over human life. With all of the horror that took place, it is sad to say that while there were many lessons to be learned sweatshops still exist today. Sweatshops keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.
As we look at the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, we study it and as students of history we look at this incident and we think to ourselves well this incident is a thing of the past, nothing like this will happen again because legislators following that incident put in the proper controls to prevent such an incident from happening again. And then we look at how factory owners today are violating the law at will, placing profits over human life, and as members of the fire service the harsh reality sets in. The reality is if corporations and business owners don’t care about their workers or abiding by the law they sure as shit don’t give a damn about the firefighters who are going to come to their place of business to put out a fire that has more violations than Lindsay Lohan has visits to rehab. While we as the fire service have benefited from the mistakes made at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, business owners have benefited from learning by where other business owners have gone wrong and how they can get around the law better than their predecessors.
On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire took place in the business establishment of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at 23-29 Washington Place in Manhattan. The fire was confined to three floors the eighth, ninth, and tenth of the building. The fire was all over in half an hour. The victims were girls whose age range was from 16 to 23 and 150 of them died as a result.
There was one fire escape in the building. That one was an interior fire escape. There was no fire escape in the back. The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. Some of the victims escaped by running down the stairs, but moments into the fire this avenue was cut off by flames.
While many changes did come about as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire the problem comes from how laws are followed. This fire happened over ninety years ago and yet today we still have sweatshops. We still have fire code violators and we still have many who refuse to conform to the laws. Of course, all of this comes from people’s needs and desires to make money by cutting corners and breaking the law. Many business owners, landlords, and those who have to abide by fire codes have learned from history how to get around the law. As long as we have people who need to make money while cutting corners and employees who are prone to be taken advantage of we will continue to see fires mirroring the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1912.