Thursday, March 24, 2011
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of an event which did much to shape the direction of American politics throughout the 20th century. On March 25, 1911, the fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claimed the lives of 146 individuals, mostly young women. Though an accident, the fire did much to jump start reforms related to workplace safety, child labor, and wages. One can view the list of the victims, plus short snippets about them, here.
Two years ago I did a post on probably the best history of the fire, David Von Drehle’s “Triangle.” In it, I noted how Von Drehle weaves together a number of strains of our political history around the event and shows how the fire served as a lens through which we can view such stories as those of women’s suffrage, the labor movement, urbanization, immigration, and the evolution of the modern Democratic Party.
has been running a number of excellent stories about the fire and its legacy. All are well worth reading to get a sense of just how important an event this was to our history. Also, there are a few films that have been made recently worth checking out. PBS’s American Experience has their film on the fire available to view here. HBO also has a documentary that will begin airing this weekend. Both have websites with additional resources. Finally, the Center for American Progress will be hosting an event tomorrow with several commentators discussing the legacy of the fire.
On the day of the fire Frances Perkins, then the head of the New York Consumers League, was in her office just blocks away across Washington Park. A witness to the day’s horrific events, she became one of the most forceful activists pushing for the reforms that ultimately came out of city and state government. A loyal supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, she became Secretary of Labor during his first term and as such was the first woman named to a Cabinet position. Thus, she and FDR were in position to further their progressive reforms and embed them in federal policy. Reflecting on the fire many years later, she called March 25, 1911 “the day the New Deal began.”
With a lot of attention being paid to labor unions in recent weeks, it’s important to have a broad historical perspective about their development and role in our society and politics. Events like the Triangle Fire show us not only how the labor movement has contributed to the creation of many policies that we today take for granted; it also reminds us that for many Americans, like the women who died that day, they offered a voice, an entrance into political life, and a path out of poverty.
**For a list of events happening in commemoration of the anniversary, see here.