The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Continuing High Cost of Fashion

by Christopher John Stephens

7 June 2017

The poor workplace conditions that led to this tragedy have been outsourced to places like Bangladesh, where similar factory tragedies happened as recently as 2013.
Photo: Public Domain (photographer unknown) 
cover art

The Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic Account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Christine Seifert

(Zest)
US: May 2017

The 25 March 1911 New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took 146 lives and became a benchmark for reform in immigration, labor rights, and industry regulations remains one of the most haunting tragedies in the United States. What couldn’t happen here did happen here. Whether the fire was the immediate result of a poorly discarded still burning cigarette or the inevitable conclusion of the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century has been the subject of debate, speculation, and analysis for over a century. Christine Seifert’s The Factory Girls: A Kaleidoscopic Account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is the latest text to cover this story.

The problem with trying to bring this story into the 21st century and make it appealing or accessible to the widest possible audience is that the writer might be compelled to make a definitive choice between two approaches. In the first choice (the best one for this subject), an academic voice and strict adherence to simply presenting the dark, horrible facts and letting them speak for themselves, there’s Leon Stein’s 1962 The Triangle Fire and David Von Drehle’s 2003 Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Both texts trust that the facts will speak for themselves. The more objective and clinical they can maintain their respective voices, the stronger the story will become.

The other option is to adapt the history into poetry, music, theater, novels or short stories. Robert Pinsky, Alice Hoffman, and Stephen King are among those who have adapted elements of the fire’s truth into their distinct artistic visions, and the results are powerful. There’s really no way to lose with this story. Hundreds of young immigrants (primarily women and usually between the ages of 12-21) worked for 80 hours or more per week in factories throughout the city, for wages that barely covered the cost of rent. They were usually illiterate, with no other options but to work in a place where they were fined for the slightest infractions.

Every element of this story lends itself to high drama and deep, profound tragedy, and the greatest responsibility of any historian should be to respectfully distance themself from the narrative by trusting that the drama will speak for itself. Unfortunately, Seifert chooses neither a high-minded academic text nor the historical novel route, but rather something uncomfortably in between. She does a good job from the prologue forward presenting the path she wants to follow. She focuses on five Triangle Factory workers: Annie Miller, Bessie Grabilowich, Rose Rosenfeld, Fannie Lanser, and Kate Leone. Their names stand for more than just Irish, Italian, Austrian, or Ukrainian immigrants. They’re able to stand for victims of all the abuse and exploitation that was accepted as a given in the industry and culture. Seifert’s clear objective, which she achieves to a degree, is to demonstrate “…how culture, politics, labor policy, and economics came together to form conditions in which the Triangle factory was bound to happen.”

Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 - 1911.jpg Created: March 25, 1911 First published on front page of The New York World 1911-03-26 (via Wikipedia)

Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 - 1911.jpg Created: March 25, 1911 First published on front page of The New York World 1911-03-26 (via Wikipedia)

Therein lies the problem. While Seifert uses these five workers as a sandwich device to stand for the generation as a whole (she returns to them by the end and tells us their respective fates), it’s an overwhelming task to weave in strands of the Gilded Age (approximately the final 30 years of the 19th century), the unmitigated gall of “Boss” Tweed and Tammany Hall in New York City, and the primitive status of living conditions for immigrants in tenements during the era. Inviting so many colorful characters into the story of pre-WWI United States was done more effectively in historical novels by E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime (1975), and Kurt Anderson in Turn of the Century (1999) and Heyday (2007). Seifert welcomes in the requisite number of scoundrels and robber barons, but they come off mainly as hazy outlines better defined by other people in different places.

The biggest problems come when Seifert resorts to a texting style of writing. In telling the story of the infamous Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901, the teen who latched herself onto rich Lothario Stanford White, Seifert adds the aside: “Good times, right?” Later, after writing about George E. Waring, who in 1878 noted that “As a rule they [poor people] will live like pigs…?” Seifert asks “That’s pretty awful, right?” The more she directly addresses us with asides better suited for Facebook posts or captions to memes, and the more she punctuates her research with exclamations, the more she cheapens the impact of her story. After probably half a dozen such instances through the course of this 165 page book, the effect cheapens and trivializes the impact of this horrible time in American history.

What was (and is) the price of fashion? How far were we willing to go for the ready-to-wear clothes known as shirtwaists that surfaced in 1900? These are two of the questions Seifert justifiably poses early in her text. Shirtwaists were emblematic of the modern, “liberated” woman, and Gibson Girls (named for the advertising drawings by Charles Dana Gibson of high society young women on the town) like Evelyn Nesbit were the focus for women who wanted more. Seifert makes this clear, and she notes that such novels as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening were probably planting seeds of rebellion or indications of possibilities for women looking to expand their options: “…the explosion of entertainment options in the Gilded Age [represented that life] didn’t have to be an endless slog through work and family obligations.”

It’s likely the most difficult choice in tackling a story like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is finding where to focus, what to include, and how to create a consistent voice that respects the reader enough not to telegraph emotions. Seifert ends her book with nine pages of “For Further Reading” and “Selected References”. Certainly this indicates a thoroughly researched book, but there’s still a feeling that it’s not much more than an expanded Doctoral Thesis. When much of the time reading a primary text is spent surveying elements of the source material, there’s something missing.

In Chapter 6, “Life In The Factory”, Seifert effectively introduces the notorious Frederick Winslow Taylor, a Harvard-educated businessman whose one true love was time and motion studies. His method (known as “Taylorism”) seemed to be the blueprint for training factory workers to be more like machines. He broke down jobs to their most base elements and made decisions the sole responsibility of managers. The problem with this part of the book, which could have been more effective with even more examples, is that Seifert doesn’t trust us to understand the horror of mind-numbing work. She keeps interrupting with asides to us: “Don’t believe me?” is followed in the next paragraph by “sounds terrible, right?” We learned that his system streamlined factory work while simultaneously dehumanizing workers, but Seifert’s commentary only makes the reader feel she doesn’t trust us.

Taylorism is alive and well. Seifert notes that it’s not inherently bad, just applied to the detriment of workers’ mental health. Her argument is that the story of “The Factory Girls” is the logical end result of The Gilded Age, Rugged Individualism, an influx of Eastern European Immigrants, and easy access to risky, low-paying jobs. Add to this the real estate moguls of the time who developed crowded tenement buildings to house the immigrants and dangerous factories that disregarded fire safety regulations in order to overwork and the fire was indeed inevitable. Seifert notes by the end of her book that history has repeated itself, as such conditions have been outsourced to places like Bangladesh, where similar factory tragedies happened as recently as 2012 and 2013. She notes the complicity of WalMart in those tragedies, and the reader wishes she had more definitively tied the stories together.

If there is an element of triumph or happy ending to The Factory Girls (and we don’t necessarily need it to make this story comprehensive) it’s in the fact that two of the women featured in the beginning, Rose and Bessie, each lived past the age of 100. Again, more research of their oral histories (if there is any) could have added a greater dimension to this book. Seifert does offer some clear suggestions to the reader by the end of this book, a clarion call to action about remaining vigilant as consumers and social activists, but again she undermines it by adding “I’m not going to lie to you…” She leaves the reader with a simple question: Why venture to write about the kaleidoscope when you don’t have the confidence to cover every sliver of it?

A procession in memory of the victims. Photo from from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress (via Wikipedia)

A procession in memory of the victims. Photo from from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress (via Wikipedia)

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