Working Women’s Tragedy: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

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Photo Credit: A cartoon referring to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire depicts a factory owner, his coat bedecked with the dollar signs, holding a door closed while workers shut inside struggle to escape amid flames and smoke, 1911, artist unknown (name illegible), International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

To say working women didn’t have it easy in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a gross understatement. They had to endure extremely low wages (more so than working men), long hours, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and harassment from all sides. Even with Progressive Era reforms, change came very slow.

Probably the most infamous example of the consequences of these injustices working women had to face during this time was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and this year marks the 110th anniversary of that tragedy. I became fascinated with this piece of women’s history when I saw a PBS special on it a long time ago. The story, in fact, was part of what inspired me to write historical fiction. I have somewhere in my files a story idea based on this event.

What intrigued me and continues to do so is the question “Who were the victims of the fire?” Out of the list of 146 workers who died in the fire, only 15 were men (I counted them — there’s a list on the Cornell University website of all of them here.) That means that 131 women died in the fire. They were immigrant women, mostly, of Italian and Eastern European origin. A quick scan of the list shows the majority of these women were between the age of sixteen to twenty-five. But what do we really know about them? The Cornell University list doesn’t give us much more than their name, age, nationality, how long they had lived in the United States, and their address. That’s it.

What was their life like? We can put ourselves in the place of these women, many of whom had been in America for less than five years. They came with their families and with hopes and dreams of a better life, some escaping persecution (like the pogroms of the time where Jews were killed in the riots and mobs of Russia and Eastern Europe). What they got was extreme poverty, misery, and exploitation. Their workweek was hardly the 9-to-5 schedule we know today. It was not uncommon for them to start their workday before the sun went up and end it well after the sun went down. They worked ten or eleven hours a day, every day (no weekends off here!) with only a tiny break for lunch. How much were they paid? An average of six dollars a week, roughly equivalent to $173 today (that’s less than $10,000 a year). To add insult to injury, these women oftentimes had to bring their own materials (like sewing needles) because their employers refused to provide them.

They not only worked long hours for little pay, they also experienced severe indignity and humiliation. In most cases, they were so heavily monitored they didn’t even have the freedom to go to the ladies’ room whenever they needed it. Doors were locked and kept locked, ostensibly because employers were afraid they would steal materials and smuggle them out during working hours or leave for a bathroom break and remain out for too long. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire turned into a tragedy of massive proportions. There was one entrance that would have offered an escape for the workers but to get to it, they had to open the doors, and the doors were locked and bolted. 

The fire escape leading from the upper floors where the fire hose water and ladders didn’t get to was in such bad shape that it collapsed when workers tried to use it as an escape route from the fire.

Photo Credit: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire escape after the fire, 1911, photographer unknown, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

These women also worked in appalling conditions. The floor was littered with dirt and debris from the work they did and never cleaned. Sanitation was a joke. For the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of these materials, like cotton and paper, were highly inflammable. Reports on the fire during the time lay blame on this waste lying around for allowing the fire to spread so quickly. How quickly? Everything was over in less than twenty minutes.

Working women appear in Book 3, Pathfinding Women, and Book 4, Dandelions, of my Waxwood Series, though in a different way. Nettie Grace, a Waxwoodian resident Vivian befriends in Book 3, introduces the Gilded Age belle to the life of working women. She owns a drug store and has dreams of setting up a women’s library and reading room for working-class women and helping poor women improve their reading and education. There is a scene in the novel where an argument ensues during a suffragist meeting between Nettie, whose passionate fight for working women’s rights, clashes with the more mild demands of the middle and upper-class women of the organization.

Things did begin to change in the latter part of the 1910s, partly as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. In New York, a commission set out to place safety and fire laws for employers as well as labor laws allowing for better working conditions overall. Most of the country followed suit.

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

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A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

Women have had a lot to fight for since women’s suffragism came to the forefront in the 19th century, and we’re still fighting. But what are those issues, particularly during the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”?

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era increased awareness for many women that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity limiting what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother had been.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

Friedan’s book and others that identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th-century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppression of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Until then, I had very little knowledge of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. My well-meaning family followed a very patriarchal model, as my parents came of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded in the characters’ psychological reality. For example, in Pathfinding Women, the third book of my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Vivian Alderdice begins to question the conventional path of a wealthy young woman followed by her mother and grandmother when she befriends Nettie Grace, a working-class women, and suffragist. Similarly, the five stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique.

If you’d like to know more about my Waxwood Series, you can check out this page. The first book of the series, The Specter, is at 99¢. And you can find out more about the issues of post-war suburban housewives in America and how some fought back in my short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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What is Historical Mystery Fiction?

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Photo Credit: Old book and magnifying glass, taken 20 January 2017: Pxhere/CC0 1.0

The tagline for this blog (bet y’all didn’t know it had a tagline…) is “psychological insights on history, mystery, and the arts.” Much of this blog deals with history, and I’ve dabbled here and there in the arts (such as my revisiting of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth here and my discussion of the role art plays in one of my books here.) But so far, I haven’t dealt with the mystery part of my blog.

Why? Because I wanted to bring you into the world of my current books, the Waxwood Series, and my stand-alone post-WWII women’s historical fiction short story collection (that’s a mouthful…), Lessons From My Mother’s Life. As much as I love classic and historical mysteries, I wasn’t ready to turn to the topic of historical mystery on my blog.

But now that the Waxwood Series has come to a close, I’m super excited to bring you all into my world of historical mystery fiction. So I’m starting with the basics: Just what is historical mystery fiction anyway?

On the face of it, a historical mystery is a subgenre of mystery fiction or, more specifically, the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Many might see the only difference between historical mystery fiction and mystery fiction is that the former is set in the past while the latter is set in the present (or future, but then, we get into sci-fi mystery if there even is such a thing.)

The genre has a relatively recent history. Classic mysteries like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Amelia Butterworth series have, of course, been around for quite a while. But these are books set in their own time, and so were contemporary to their original readers, even if they are historical to us. The first actual historical mystery fiction was a series of short stories set in the pre-Civil War era (if you’re curious, they were written by Melville Davisson Post and can be found here.) The first full-length historical mystery novel was written by — no surprise — the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie. Murder Comes At the End is set in Ancient Egypt, so it’s a huge step away from Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

The cross between mystery and history becomes interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers into a world of the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved, but they’re also giving readers insights into another era. And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but the crime and criminals that such an era would have produced and how those crimes were solved and the criminals caught.

The latter is especially important because we have to remember that crime detection, investigation, and conviction has changed drastically over the centuries. There was no DNA testing and no real scientific forensics to help solve crimes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fingerprinting, for example, didn’t begin until the late 19th century. So crime detection was relatively primitive and crude in most cases, which makes it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective to solve them, but, I would argue, more fun for readers to follow. 

As a writer, I’m fascinated by how people lived and breathed their time and I love solving puzzles, which is one reason why I decided to delve into the historical mystery genre. My upcoming series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, takes place at the turn of the 20th century when America was beginning to clean up its act regarding the corruption, greed, and graft of the Gilded Age. Progressive Era reforms were starting to take shape in many American institutions, including the judicial system. 

The first book of this series will be out this summer, but you can read more about it here.  

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Social History: Putting the Human Element Back into History

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Photo Credit: Dudley Street, Seven Dials, 1872, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust, UK: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

I’m starting out this year as a revisionist (in a sense). I’m revising my perspective on my writing and my passion for history by examining what really makes them tick. For those who have been following my blog for a while, you know I’ve had several transformations in the past years. I started out in 2017 as a contemporary literary fiction writer believing in psychological reality in fiction, something I am still fascinated by and still incorporate in much of my fiction. Then I discovered a way to transform my passion for history, especially women’s history, into stories about resilient women and the nooks and crannies of history that don’t always come up in historical fiction. 

Last year, I completed the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga set among San Francisco’s elite. I discovered that my real passion for history lies more in its social and psychological aspects rather than its politics and events. Those terms can sound a little vague and academic, so this month, I’ll be talking about what social history is and what it means in my fiction.

Let’s begin with a simple definition: Social history is history with the human element thrown in. Not that political or economic history isn’t about humans, as all history inevitably is. But you’re more likely to read a book about or set in the Civil War, say, where the people or characters are players in the big event. Social history looks at the people who participated in history, how they were affected by it, and how they influenced it. In my Civil War example, a novel might be about African American soldiers (actual or fictional) and their daily struggles not only with the war itself but with the racism surrounding them on the battlefield, forsaking a more blow-by-blow account of the events of the war. Social history gives us a window into the way people lived and breathed in their time and, sometimes, the values and beliefs they held that we want to acquire or release in the 21st century.

Social history is actually an academic field of study that emerged in the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t much of a surprise, since much of the social awareness that emerged during these times required knowledge of the past. For example, the Civil Rights movement was built on the oppression and heinous crimes of slavery and on racism not only of the present but of the past. Similarly, the second-wave feminist movement, as I discuss here, took the issues the 19th-century suffragists were fighting for to the next level.

When I say I focus more on social history than on political and economic history, I mean that how my characters live and relate to their environment matters to me. The more academic perspective of social history often looks at the bigger picture, like the movements, systems, and structures of history. These are important, but I also find the way people related to these social structures and lived within them (or rebelled against them) is part of what makes history so fascinating and relevant to us today. 

Vivian Alderdice, the main character of the Waxwood Series, is a great example. Like many 19th century women, she is locked in social systems and structures with very rigid definitions of what women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a member of the Nob Hill elite, adhering to the social norms of the aristocratic class (which is especially true in Book 3 of the series, Pathfinding Women). Later, she moves into suffragism and progressivism, but, just as she had to revise her position in her Nob Hill world, she also has to examine her values and beliefs against those of her new world (which you can read about in the last book of the series, Dandelions). 

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, social history plays a huge role. The series begins in the first years of the 20th century when many people were still reluctant to leave behind Victorian values for the complexity and fears of the modern. Like Vivian, the series main character is a social reformer, and when she moves from San Francisco to the small, dusty town of Arrojo, her forward-thinking ideas aren’t always embraced, appreciated, or understood. 

You can find out more about that series here. The first two books of the Waxwood Series, which were re-edited and refreshed in 2020, are here and here

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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The Progressive Era’s New Woman

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history, women, Victorian era, Progressive era, turn-of-the-century, New Woman, Gibson Girl

The drawing above is the prototypical Gibson Girl. Interestingly, her features are very delicate and feminine, and her expression is flirtatious to emphasize the idea that she was there to serve men, not threaten them.

Photo Credit: Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson, 1901, pen and ink drawing, published in The Social Ladder (1902) by Charles Dana Gibson: MCAD Library/Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

I originally wrote this blog post last year for Women’s Equality Day. As I’ve been working on the last book of my Waxwood Series, which is set at the turn of the 20th century, the New Woman has emerged as an amazing icon in history embodied in the series protagonist, Vivian Alderdice, and in some of the women around her.   

Women’s suffragism wasn’t just about politics. It was also about the psychological realities of women’s lives. Years of being locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology made women anxious to get out. The separate spheres placed boundaries on their physical, social, emotional, and spiritual lives. When women’s rights came to the forefront, many women realized it was time to break free of those limitations, and the only way to do it was to create a new kind of woman. It should be no surprise that she emerged with the new century when America was leaving behind the cobwebs of the past and looking to a bright, shiny future. 

The New Woman was born in the latter part of the Gilded Age in the wake of progressive reforms. So many changes were happening during this time — the shift from rural to urban living, the rise of big business, social and political movements — and women wanted and needed to be a part of it. This made it impossible for the Angel in the House to survive. The New Woman, in fact, pitted herself against this ideal.

She was anything but complacent, docile, and submissive. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” was the typical New Woman. First created in the 1890s, she was young and single, pursuing fun and leisure with as much vigor as her male companions. Gone were the layers of petticoats and bustles. Gone were the tight bone corsets that made the Angel in the House so fragile and helpless and limited her mobility. In her place was a woman who wore fewer layers, dressed in a narrow, moveable skirt and shirtwaist (the equivalent of a t-shirt in those days), and donned a corset that didn’t limit her as much as those worn by her mother and grandmother.

Her freedom went well beyond her dress. She established her own identity separate from any man’s and proved her strength not only emotionally but physically. It’s no surprise that, although the bicycle was invented in the early 19th century, bicycling was not an acceptable activity for women until the 1890s. The fussy requirements of dress and chastity in the Victorian era hardly allowed for a comfortable ride (not to mention a modest one). This changed with the Gibson Girl who was often depicted as a bicycle enthusiast. The New Woman was not only willing to take on sports but male-dominated careers as well. For example, in Gertrude Atherton’s novel Mrs. Belfame (1916), the New Woman appears as a group of reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she goes on trial for the murder of her husband. They are willing to engage in the “yellow journalism” popular among their male contemporaries at the time.

While the New Woman represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel. She gave women a new image, true, but one that wouldn’t threaten the male order and would, in fact, even please men. Gibson, for example, frequently pictured his ladies engaged in the art of flirtation, emphasizing the idea that, in spite of her “masculinized” appearance and manners (masculine for that time, that is), she was still “just a woman,” interested primarily in love and marriage.

In Book 1 of my series, The Specter, the New Woman first appears in the character of Marvina Moore, a widow who stirs Vivian’s interest in suffragism. As the series progresses, Vivian shifts from a debutante and heiress of the last century to a progressive reformer of the new. In Book 3, a conversation about bicycles ensues:

“You forget, Mr. Leblanc,” she said, “many young women nowadays prefer the bicycle to the scrub board.”

“Oh, that’s only a passing fad,” he insisted. 

“Are you going to turn into one of those New Women, Vivian?” Amber asked archly.

The woman made it sound so much like an insult that Vivian colored. “It would be a sight more flattering than a nagging wife,” she retorted.

In Book 4, Vivian’s feet are firmly planted in New Woman territory, right down to her sensible dress and athletic prowess.

In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, also emerges as a New Woman. She’s the Gibson Girl in every way, including her unhesitating involvement in crime investigation. In the opening of the first book, Adele arrives at a small town still caught inside the net of Victorian ideals in an automobile. Anyone owning a car, let alone a woman, at that time when they were still considered passing fads, was seen as more of a nuisance than an innovator.

Adele soon establishes herself in town as an independent woman who owns her own home and runs a stationery store. She prefers to help the town sheriff and his deputy (her brother) solve crimes than participate in teas and socials that were the primary occupation for women who were unmarried.

If you’d like to read The Specter, you can find all the information for the book here. You can read more about the series here. To find out more about my historical mystery series, coming in 2021, you can check out this page.  

Want more fascinating information on history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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