Tag Archives: American History

March 25th – Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Tragedy occurs in New York City

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911.

On this day in 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood, and the building is currently designated a National Historic Landmark (click here to see where the building is located). In total, 146 lives were lost in the tragedy, either from the fire itself, smoke inhalation, or falling/jumping to their deaths. The vast majority of the victims were female Jewish or Italian immigrants, aged as young as 14 years of age. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire opened Americans’ eyes to the unsafe conditions of many of the country’s workplaces, leading to improved factory safety regulations and better conditions for factory workers.

Hundreds of shirtwaist (a blouse that resembled a man’s shirt) factories existed in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest of the factories, employing over 500 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants to America. Work conditions at the factory were extreme, despite the immense profits that factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris brought in. Women (and children) worked 9 hours a day on weekdays and 7 hours on Saturdays, making only $7-12 a week. Workers at the Triangle Factory had few breaks at work, were followed to the bathroom and were rushed back to work, and worked in overcrowded environments. Important to this story, few safety regulations existed in the factory: cotton textile scraps (flammable of course) littered the factory floor, no sprinkler system was installed, and the fire escape ladder was shoddy and only reached down to the second floor. As well, the factory owners Blanck and Harris were afraid that their workers would steal equipment or merchandise from the factory floor. Consequently, Blanck and Harris mandated that one of the two doors to the factory be locked while the factory was running, so that the workers would have to take a specific exit while the factory was closing to be searched for stolen products. This single exit was partitioned to allow only one worker at a time to leavefor inspection. Even at this time, Blanck and Harris’ policy of locking a door was against fire regulations in New York City.

At 4:40 pm on Saturday March 25th, 1911, right before the factory was closing for the day, a fire started on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While the official cause of the fire has never been determined, fire officials at the time believed a lit cigarette ignited a trash bin full of cotton scraps next to a worker’s station. As alluded to earlier, cotton is quite flammable, and soon enough, the entire cotton-covered floor was up in flames, spreading up to the floors above. Efforts were made to try to extinguish the fire on the floor using a fire hose in the factory, however the hose had not been properly inspected and proved completely useless as little water pressure existed. The only course of action left for the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was to escape.

Tragically the options were limited for the workers trying to get out. As one of the two doors was locked, workers scrambled towards the other spatially-limiting door, often trampling and pushing others aside to get to the exit quickly. Other workers sought exodus through the passenger elevators, which ran up and down the building, trying to get as many workers out from the factory as possible. Some of the workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building, where law students at nearby NYU (New York University) threw ladders over from adjacent buildings to get people out. Some workers took the fire escape ladder, which was so flimsy that, when people went to climb down the ladder, the ladder simply fell off the building, sending workers plummeting to their deaths. More drastic, and often ill-fated, attempts were made to leave the factory. Some workers tried to slide down elevator cables, ending up losing their grip and fatally falling. Sadly, many would jump out of the windows in a last-ditch attempt to escape the fire. Despite the arrival of the New York Fire Department, their ladders could only reach the 6th floor, and their fire nets proved too weak to catch the fall of workers. By this time, many onlookers had come and stood outside of the Asch Building, looking on in horror at the tragedy that lay in front of them. William Gunn Shepard, an eyewitness at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire commented on those jumping out from the windows: “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”

The bodies from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were recovered and taken to Charities Pier (also known as Misery Lane), for identification by friends and loved ones. The official death toll was 146, 123 women and 23 men. The victims were interned in sixteen different cemeteries. Interestingly, six victims of the fire remaining unidentified until 2011, 100 years after the fire occurred. While these six victims were originally buried together in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, a grave marker has now been placed with the identities of the victims.

Following the tragedy, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for their responsibility in the deaths resulting from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The trial lasted for three weeks, and ultimately Blanck and Harris were acquitted. The two factory owners were acquitted after the prosecution failed to definitely conclude that the door was locked and that the owners knew this, but also, that fewer people would have died had the doors been unlocked. On a positive note however, a commission was put in place after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to look into the conditions of factories throughout New York City. The findings of the commission concluded that many factories lacked many basic safety considerations, such as sprinklers, fire walls, fire doors. In the years after the tragedy, legislation was passed at the state and federal levels to strengthen workplace safety laws and regulations, improving the labour environment of workers throughout the country.

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February 21st – Nixon visits China

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

Nixon meets Mao in Beijing, February 21st, 1972.

On this day in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China, marking the first time an American president had visited Communist China. Nixon’s visit marked the end of almost 25 years of separation between the United States and Mainland China (= Communist China/People’s Republic of China), and led to improved relations between the two countries. The president’s week-long trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou was described by Nixon himself as “the week that changed the world”.

Ever since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the United States recognized the government in Taiwan, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, as the sole government of China. American diplomatic recognition was extended only to Taiwan and not Mainland China. Ironically, Nixon, a politician who had made his career as being fervently anti-communist, recognized the need to improve relations with Mainland China during his presidency. Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed that opening to China would allow the Americans to gain further diplomatic leverage against the other communist great power, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Additionally, improving relations with Communist China was thought by Kissinger to aid in a quicker resolution to the Vietnam War. From his first day in the Oval Office, Nixon worked towards open communication with Mainland China.

From February 21st to 28th, 1972, Nixon made his historical trip to China, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou.  Almost immediately after landing in Beijing on Air Force One, Nixon met with Chairman Mao for a one hour meeting. Upon being introduced to Nixon, Mao quipped, through a translator, to Nixon: “I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-Shek would not approve of this.” Allegedly, Mao told his doctor after his encounter with the American president that he found Nixon “forthright” and Kissinger “suspicious”. While not attending diplomatic meetings, Nixon got the chance to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Ming Dynasty Tombs. As American television journalists (over 100) followed President Nixon throughout his trip to China, many Americans were able to see on TV these Chinese landmarks as well as a glimpse into life in Communist China.

Later on in the week, the United States and Mainland China issued the Shanghai Communiqué. In the Communiqué, the two governments pledged to normalize relations between their two countries, agreed that there was only ‘one China’ and that Taiwan was part of that China (the wording was such that the United States did not necessarily recognize that Taiwan was part of Communist China however), and that American military installations on Taiwan would be cut back. In Shanghai, Nixon said the following of what the Communiqué meant:

“This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communiqué is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.”

Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 paved the way for increased Sino-American foreign relations. In 1979, the American government officially switched its diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing, ending official relations with Taiwan. Historians also credit Nixon’s visit for leading to increased economic ties that bind the two countries together today.

Here is a link to a film produced by the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library documenting President Nixon’s historic trip to China. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cfsI4ZjTbU

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February 4th – The Confederate States of America was formed

Map of the United States at the beginning of the American Civil War. Blue = Union, non-slaveholding states. Yellow = Union, slaveholding states. Dark Red = Confederate, states that seceded by February 1861. Bright Red = Confederate, states that seceded after attack on Fort Sumter.

Map of the United States at the beginning of the American Civil War. Blue = Union, non-slaveholding states. Yellow = Union, slaveholding states. Dark Red = Confederate, states that seceded by February 1861. Bright Red = Confederate, states that seceded after attack on Fort Sumter.

Sorry for the hiatus on blogging, I have been recently bogged down with some school work. On this day in 1861, the Confederate States of America was formed. The Confederate States of America initially constituted the seven Deep South states that seceded from the American Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in the November 1860 election. Almost two months after the formation of the Confederate States of America, the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour would start the American Civil War between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, the bloodiest war in American history, with over 600000 dead.

Tensions between the northern and southern sections of America over the issue of slavery had existed since America’s formation. It would be foolhardy, even impossible, to attempt to discuss the history of slavery from Colonial America to Antebellum America in a single blog post, therefore I shall only write about the immediate events preceding the Confederate States of America’s formation. The election of 1860 featured four major candidates for president, as the Democratic Party fractured into northern and southern wings over the issue of slavery: Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for the Republican Party, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for the Southern Democratic Party, John Bell of Tennessee for the Constitutional Union Party, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois for the (Northern) Democratic Party. Lincoln won the election, however his victory came with little support from the Southern states. In fact, given Lincoln’s general unpopularity in the South, in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, Lincoln did not even make it on the ballot. Fearful that the election of a Republican president, along with concurrent Republican control of both houses of Congress, would serve to eradicate Slave Power in the country, Southern states began seceding from the Union. By February 1st, 1861, seven Deep South states had left the Union, forming independent republics in the following order: 1.) South Carolina, 2.) Mississippi, 3.) Florida, 4.) Alabama, 5.) Georgia, 6.) Louisiana, and 7.) Texas.

On February 4th, 1861, representatives from the seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama in the State Capitol. There, a provisional Confederate government was formed, with a Confederate Congress founded, and Montgomery made the capital of the Confederacy. After the attack on Fort Sumter in April, four other slave states joined the Confederacy: Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Slave-holding Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware stayed loyal to the Union, however sent soldiers to fight on both sides of the Civil War. The Confederate States of America would remain unrecognized as a country throughout the American Civil War, and ceased to exist following the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865.

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