From the Ashes
Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a day of unspeakable tragedy in the history of America. The peace of the halcyon spring afternoon in the area of New York's Washington Square was broken by the screaming sirens of fire engines, and witnesses looked on in horror as the top three floors of a nearby ten-story building were engulfed in flames. The building housed the Triangle Waist Company, a manufacturer of women's blouses. With no other way of escaping the conflagration, scores of employees leaped from the windows, their clothes and hair ablaze. Within minutes, 146 workers died. The victims were almost all young women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-three, and most were recent immigrants, Italians and Russian Jews. The Triangle Fire was more than an isolated tragedy on the landscape of history; it was "part of a larger story woven into the fabric of American life." Consideration of that story is critical in understanding the significance of the incident and its effect on American life today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, over twenty million immigrants arrived in the United States from Europe. Driven from their homelands by a variety of conditions, including natural disasters, poverty, war, and persecution, they were drawn to the new land in hopes of a better life. By the start of the twentieth century, industrialization had made the United States a world power. A small number of immigrants, including such illustrious personages as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie, were rewarded for their ingenuity and hard work with unimaginable wealth and success; however, life for most Americans during this time was a harsh struggle for existence. People, native born and immigrant alike, toiled long hours for little pay, often in dangerous and squalid conditions. It was often commonplace for workers to be injured or even killed on the job, and there were no laws or safety nets to protect them.
The Triangle Fire brought this reality to the forefront of American consciousness in a way no other tragedy had ever done, raising profound questions about the nature of both labor and social progress. Individuals, largely unrecognized in subsequent history books, rose up to lead a moral crusade to address these difficult issues. One of these notable leaders was Frances Perkins. A social worker and the leader of an organization devoted to improving working conditions in factories, she personally witnessed the fire and was so shaken by what she had seen that she devoted the rest of her life to making sure such a horror could never happen again. In the 1930s, she became the first woman to hold a cabinet position, serving as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Historians divide the story of immigration in America into two periods—old and new. Old immigration began in colonial times and involved mostly Protestants from northern and western European areas, such as Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. The 1880s marked the beginning of new immigration; in contrast to their predecessors, newcomers during this time came mainly from southern and eastern European countries. By 1910, the majority of this new "flood of humanity" was made up of Catholics from Italy and Jews from Russia. Virtually all of the victims of the Triangle Fire were from these two immigrant groups.
Though northern Italy at this time was fairly advanced economically, the southern region of the country was one of the poorest places in Europe. Peasants worked tiny parcels of land which they did not own and lived at the mercy of wealthy landowners; high rents made it impossible for them to get ahead, and high taxes collected in the south were used to benefit those living in the north. The law enforcement and court systems served the rich; if peasants needed redress for wrongs committed against them, they were forced to seek justice or vengeance with their own hands.
To make matters worse, misuse of the environment in this afflicted land leached the nutrients from the soil, causing crops to fail. Malaria was epidemic, and earthquakes and other natural disasters intensified the citizens' suffering. Between 1880 and 1921, as many as 4.5 million people from the south of Italy fled their homes in search of better lives in the United States.
During these years, only Jews from Russia came to America in equally great numbers. Although they too were driven from their countries of origin by poverty, the biggest threat to their existence in their homelands was religious hatred. In Russia, anti-Semitism was the official government policy; laws limiting Jewish rights filled a book...
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Into the Magic Cauldron
The thrilling welcome seemingly promised to immigrants by Lady Liberty was quickly tempered by the lengthy and fearful rituals of entry. Upon disembarking from their ships, passengers entered a huge reception center on Ellis Island, located at the tip of Manhattan. Ellis Island was "a giant filter designed to admit workers for the nation's growing economy and to reject any who might become a burden on taxpayers." Hopeful immigrants waited in long lines to be examined by a series of doctors; they were then questioned before an inspector to further determine their fitness for acceptance into the new land. Rejection for any reason meant the immigrant's return to Europe at the expense of the steamship company. An immigrant's being rejected often created a painful dilemma for family members who had to decide whether to stay in the new land or accompany their loved one. Happily, most newcomers passed successfully through the system within a day.
New York in the early 1900s was the second-largest city in the world. Its skyline was distinguished by clusters of innovative multistoried buildings dubbed "skyscrapers," and as it grew, the city became a leader in developing and utilizing modern inventions, especially in communication and transportation. A large discrepancy in the distribution of wealth was quickly made evident in society. An upper class of very wealthy families established itself in a row of mansions opposite Central Park; to be fair, it should be said that some of these citizens gave generously to charity. However, this social group also was noted for their lives of decadence and conspicuous consumption. In contrast, the reality of daily living for most new immigrants was quite different.
Most of the Italians and Russian Jews who passed through Ellis Island chose to stay in Manhattan neighborhoods populated by people from their homelands. Italians headed south to Mulberry...
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Flesh and Blood So Cheap
Without social nets such as health insurance and social security to rely on, new immigrants had to find work immediately if they were to survive. The Italian newcomers were largely peasants in their home country, and they thus were limited to unskilled jobs when they came to American cities. "Strong and willing," these individuals did the hard work that was generally eschewed by more established citizens, but which was necessary to the growth of the nation's economy. Italians took on low-paying, arduous, and dangerous jobs as dockworkers and construction workers to provide themselves and their families with the basic necessities of life. The skyscrapers and subways that distinguish New York City were built largely by these Italian immigrants. The Russian Jews who came to America, on the other hand, were for the most part skilled artisans in their countries of origin. They found their main source of work in the clothing industry.
Ready-made clothing had existed since the 1700s, but the demand for "off-the-rack" items in standard sizes significantly increased after the Civil War. The invention of the sewing machine and the cutter's knife enabled the industry to grow to meet this demand. By the 1890s, New York became the nation's capital for ready-made clothing.
The actual labor of the clothing industry rested on "the backs of abused workers" in almost every aspect during those early days. Cotton, the basic fiber essential to manufacturing, was grown and harvested in the southern states by miserably paid "whites and blacks, descendants of freed slaves." The raw cotton was then transported to textile mills in New England, where workers, some as young as nine or ten, operated dangerous machinery designed to color the material and make it into thread, and then cloth. From there, the cloth was carried to manufacturers, who hired contractors to cut and sew it into the finished product....
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An Overflow of Suffering: The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand
The main goal of trade unions is to improve wages, hours, and working conditions for laborers. The first unions in America appeared in the late 1860s in the steel, coal, and railroad industries. During this time, unions in the garment industry proved impossible to form because the sweatshop system was so fragmented and the workers were so easy to replace. However, with the advent of the "model" factory (where large numbers of laborers toiled together in the same locations), it became feasible to form garment workers' unions.
In 1900, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was established. The union had numerous branches,...
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The Third Gate: Fire at the Triangle
One year after the "great uprising," conditions at the garment factories were arguably no better than before. At most shops, employers had broken their agreements with unions and were finding other ways to victimize workers: employees were fined for petty offenses, and experienced craftswomen were forced to teach others what they knew before being dismissed and replaced by the lower-paid individuals they had tutored. In addition, a new worry lay heavily on the minds of employees. As proven by a 1910 disaster at a cotton underwear facility in Newark, New Jersey, the threat of experiencing a catastrophic fire in the workplace was very real.
The science of...
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A Stricken Conscience
New Yorkers reacted to the Triangle Fire with shock and grief. Visions of the carnage scarred the psyches of survivors, rescue workers, and the public alike. After the blaze was extinguished, victims' remains were collected at a temporary morgue, dubbed "Misery Lane." There, family members filed through, searching among the charred bodies for loved ones. During the week after the fire, continual funeral processions wound through the streets of the Lower East Side and Little Italy. By April 5, 1911, a final tribute was held for the seven individuals whose unidentified bodies remained unclaimed; four-hundred-thousand mourners turned out to pay their respects.
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The Price of Liberty
Wendell Phillips once said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," and the events following the Triangle Fire and associated reforms give testimony to this observation. In the 1920s, radical elements which had taken control of unions were convinced that drastic changes were still needed in the workplace. They engineered a joint strike against manufacturers that was so large that it shut down businesses for twenty-six weeks and cost both sides hundreds of millions of dollars. There was nothing noble about this strike; violence was rampant, and both sides enlisted the help of the criminal underworld. When the strike finally ended, gangsters shrewdly retained their contacts...
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