Caspersen Dean Richard Greenwald appears in a new PBS doc about the horrific
Triangle Factory fire.
By Mary Jo Patterson
Maybe the tragedy still shocks because most of the 146 victims were girls or young women. Or because many jumped to their deaths, driven by flames that had already ignited their clothing. Maybe it’s because exits were locked, and fire ladders were too short. Whatever the reason, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York City is an event worth revisiting, again and again—with powerful lessons for the present, says history professor Richard Greenwald, dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.
Greenwald, author of a 2005 book and numerous articles about the fire, discusses the garment industry of that era in a new documentary airing nationally on PBS stations on February 28. The film, Triangle Fire, part of the American Experience series, marks the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the city’s worst workplace calamity prior to Sept. 11.
Many people know that a government investigation into the inferno led to improved fire safety codes, labor laws and a new reform movement. But fewer understand the broader context of the fire, according to Greenwald. “The fire occurred during the Progressive Era, at a time when many New Yorkers thought some of these issues had been solved. The city had passed some new reform laws. There was a new awareness of fire and safety and zoning,” he says. A strike by women working in the city’s shirtwaist, or blouse, factories had been settled the previous year, with significant gains. But workers at Triangle went back to work without a union agreement.
Greenwald believes the building’s location in Greenwich Village helped fuel outrage and reform. “Middle-class folks were watching,” he says, “people like Frances Perkins,” who later became U.S. Labor Department secretary. “The fire also gave Tammany Hall, which had been losing its hold on its city, a cause. Labor relations went from being private to being public.”