FROM FIRE TO FANTASY
A Brief Commentary on The Politics of Mourning presented as a “source” for researching the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
I began my research into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire with an eye to disclosing the difficult and dangerous working conditions for women and men in the early twentieth century. This fire, in a mere eighteen minutes, physically destroyed the lives of one hundred forty five people, along with the hearts and souls of a community. The shock and outpouring of grief by the community, state and country at the death of these women and children, and subsequent change in labor laws – always too little, too late – live on today.
The newspaper sources, court transcripts, firsthand accounts all built disgust at the owners and the managers for being complacent about safety; panic and sadness for the people desperately seeking a way out; horror faced by those helpless to stand by and watch as girls jumped to their deaths and at the descriptions of the cleanup of the skeletons poised over their sewing machines, killed before they could move.
Then I read the “source” paper The Politics of Mourning, a cerebral attempt to use the horrid fate of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers as a springboard to an example of racism, white versus black. The author presents the idea that the community’s outpouring of grief for the lives of these dead women and men is an example of how white and “not quite white (Italian, Jewish)” coalesce into white versus black. She presents the facts of the fire and its aftermath, then takes the giant leap that had these workers been black, there would have been no outcry, using the Tulsa Race Riot as the opposing example – though a different cause and circumstance.
White versus black was NOT the issue surrounding this fire and its aftermath. Unsafe working conditions, lax labor laws, inconsiderate owners led to these deaths. Further, white versus black, though part of the landscape and psyche of the U.S., was NOT the driving force in the expansion and development of the United States of America in the 1860s, in the early twentieth century, into the 1960s until now. Freedom and Justice for ALL is the underlying ideal of our country…it is THAT for which all Americans live, fight and often, die. Freedom to be safe in our homes, to make our own destinies. The promise of Freedom is why people come here – some to engage it, some to annihilate it as in the case of in country terrorists. Freedom for all, or in the current vernacular, ALL LIVES MATTER. It is an ideal, difficult to meet, but worth seeking.
I will not continue on for four pages arguing against the argument made in The Politics of Mourning. Nor will I further decry the bias presented in this textbook. When faced with the inaccuracy about the Japanese being given no warning about the A-Bomb, I was advised I could talk with the publisher. I understood with that comment, that no attempt will be made by the instructor or the school to ensure that future History of the US 1865-Present classes are presented accurate facts. No matter. You warn everyone at the beginning to read everything critically, so it is up to us to find inaccuracies, not up to staff or administration to point or weed them out.
I will write something about the Triangle Fire sometime in the future, after more in depth research and thought and time away from the bias of this class. It is horribly fascinating. I hope to find out about the workers’ lives before they came to work there, how they lived afterward. How does one recover from watching associates burn to ash? Did these owners go back to making their fortunes by cramming hundreds into small, poorly ventilated spaces? I will find out, and write about it later when my schedule allows.
With all due respect to my professor, and without proper citation format, I submit this for what it is worth, which will be nothing in my overall grade. I have learned much in this class, though: to watch for accuracy in any information presented as the authority on a subject; to do proper research, to come to, if not logical, at least my own conclusions; and that I do not intend to be an historian, and so ultimately have little interest in the trappings of historians. And so it is.
* Dad and his B-52 crew on Alert, living at the Alert Shack two weeks every month – sometimes families were allowed to visit and share a Sunday lunch…not every Sunday though
* Dad and crew flying 24 hour missions to Russia –
* something about a Chrome Dome…something to do with those 24 hour missions and Russia (Wikipedia explains it so: Bombers loitered near points outside the Soviet Union to provide rapid first strike or retaliation capability in case of nuclear war) I always imagined it like a cover over the earth, and Dad flew to its edge
* the “red phone”
* Dad’s big flight helmet with a sun shield, and he wore these two little plastic discs around his neck. He told us that Santa could speak to us through them…sometime later someone told me they were radiation detectors, to tell if he’d been contaminated somehow
* Everyone at Mass praying for God to stop the spread of Communism every day before class (2nd grade – 6th grade), and on Sundays
* All the kids at school wearing dog tags with our names and addresses
* People building bomb shelters (we didn’t)
* Being told that if the Russians bombed America, we would be amongst the first to be bombed because there were missile sites all around the base, and the Russians would want to take out the missiles and the B-52s first. We were proud to be that “important.”
* Practicing for a nuclear blast…all families on base had to have a stockpile of water, canned foods sufficient for at least two weeks; everyone was told to stay inside (though we kids would sneak out after the AP (Air Police) vehicles drove down the block – it was a game to hide from them)
Have you ever seen a fully loaded B-52 fly over with its vast, heavy wings? Have you ever imagined what it is like for that giant airplane, loaded with nuclear bombs, to refuel below another giant airplane (tanker), so close that one miscalculation could explode them both.
Once one of the 52s exploded on base (Walker AFB, NM). The blast blew out all the windows in our base school. One of the Airmen who was killed had been our Sunday school teacher. The power of that explosion was stunning. Imagine the power of a nuclear bomb…
The world knew the destruction of the Atomic Bomb. There was no reason to believe it could not, would not happen again. It was, and is, a real threat.
I am curious to see how this textbook presents it. The very question to describe real vs. perceived threats makes me think the authors are skeptics. Perception is reality…threat of death by bombs was very real when I was a kid.
I love the idea of the flappers, daring to look their fathers in the eye with their cigarettes, freshly bobbed hair and exposed knees. My grandmother had a flapper dress; glamorous, beaded, fringed. Even in the 1950s, it seemed scandalous to think someone I knew might have dared to wear it. Daring…that describes the era. Just like Lady Mary in Downton Abbey with her bobbed hair, smoky eyes and that head band, real, live, educated, young women dared to breach protocol, at least until the financial collapse of 1929, which sobered things up a bit as they found themselves married with hungry mouths to feed, and the need and/or desire to keep their husband’s happy.The AVON Company, first known as the California Perfume Company, started in 1886, and offered women the chance to be “the CEO of their own company.” (www.avoncompany.com/aboutavon/history) Imagine in the 1920s and ’30s and beyond, when what husbands thought was a nice diversion for their little women to sell lipstick and hand cream to their friends as long as it did not interfere with getting dinner on the table at five actually put food on that table. A diversion, yes. A source of pin money, sure, but cosmetics is BIG business…BIG business that even the humblest, most exhausted mom in the most rural town patronizes most of the days of her life. Dragging on a hot afternoon? splash on a cool cologne stored in the back of the ice box, and voila! You are refreshed and sweet smelling for the rest of the afternoon. Sunday morning to church? just a light touch of lipstick, a pinch of your cheeks and you’re ready to face the pulpit. Want to stop people in their tracks? wear Chanel No. 5, introduced in 1921 for the new, modern woman Coco Chanel imagined she epitomized. (Chanel No 5: The story behind the classic perfume, 29 May 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/world) If nothing else, the flappers sparked a generation of women to face the world with style and determination.
The art of writing science fiction began to take hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. H.G. Wells (1866-1946), the Father of Science Fiction wrote THE TIME MACHINE in 1895! the WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1898! Imagine his dreams at night! Imagine how his visions fueled the minds of industrialists and militarists in the new century.
I attended Eastern New Mexico University in 1970 where my English professor was none other than Jack Williamson (1908-2006), who became the “Dean of Science Fiction” upon the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988 (http://www.imdb.com). Dr. Williamson began publishing his tales in the 1920s, when “Proceeding at a dizzy pace, 1920s SF quickly saw the birth of major trends that would dominate the field for decades to come including extra sensory powers, alien contact, time police, and robots .” (The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s by Pierre Comtois). Dr. Williamson wrote of robots designed to simplify the lives the humans. Machines doing the work of hundreds of men, women and children, enhancing lives and increasing profits. Surely the “fiction” of science inspired industrialists like Henry Ford as he built his plants with their assembly lines. Surely no one actually believed that robots, designed to help man, would eventually kill him…until 2015, when all the predictions of Science Fiction writers in the previous hundred years came true in an auto plant in Germany…
WHAT IMPOSSIBLE INVENTIONS, DEVELOPMENTS NOW, TODAY, WILL COME TRUE IN ANOTHER CENTURY? There is nothing to be done, but to continue to feed our heads…(a nod to Grace Slick and White Rabbit)