Fire safety measures have vastly improved over the years, but in the early 1900s, no such safety measures existed. That would prove deadly on March 25, 1911 in New York City. People didn’t really know about materials that were more flammable, other than wood. Nevertheless, wood was the main material used in buildings, and in fact, still is today. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. It was located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan. These days that is not really a place we would expect to see a factory…much less a sweatshop, but the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s factory was a true sweatshop. They employed mostly young immigrant women who worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teenaged girls who did not speak English and made only about $15 per week working 12 hours a day, every day.
In 1911, the Asch Building had four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and the workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it. There were also two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent stealing and the door of the other only opened inward. The fire escape was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances…in an emergency, it was almost useless. Pretty much everyone knew about the danger of fire in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, but high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government ensured that no useful precautions were taken to prevent fires. The problem was that making the factories safe cost money, and dug into the profits, so the owners didn’t want to do what was necessary to save lives. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory’s owners were known to be particularly anti-worker in their policies and had played a critical role in breaking a large strike by workers the previous year.
On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful. The hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. They were at the mercy of the raging inferno. The fire grew and the workers panicked. They tried to exit the building by the elevator, but it could only hold 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips before it broke down due to the heat and flames. In a desperate attempt to escape the flames. The girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths. The girls who fled by way of the stairwells also met awful fates. When they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive. In all, 145 workers between the ages of 14 and 43, mostly women and mostly in their teens and early twenties, died that day. Six of them would not be identified until February, 2011…100 years later.
Once the fire was reported, the firefighters tried to put it out, but their ladders would only reach the seventh floor. The fire was on the eighth floor. When escape was proven to be impossible, the girls, desperate to escape the searing heat and flames, began to jump. The bodies of those who jumped landed on the hoses, hampering the flow. The firemen got out nets to catch the girls, but they jumped three at a time, tearing the nets. The nets were of no real help. Within 18 minutes, it was all over. Of the dead, 49 workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. Two more died later from their injuries. The workers’ union set up a march on April 5 on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire. It was attended by 80,000 outraged people. Despite a good deal of evidence that the owners and management had been horribly negligent in the fire, a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges. The tragedy did result in some good, however. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in the aftermath of the fire and the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law was passed in New York that October. Both were crucial in preventing similar disasters in the future. Still, I think that it will take the memory of the victims of corruption to ever really inspire people to change the way things are.
For those of us who have to set an alarm to get up for work, or whatever else one might need an alarm for, the alarm clock truly is not our friend. Whether you had a good night’s sleep or not, really doesn’t matter either. You also know that if the power goes off, or you just don’t happen to hear that alarm, because you are a heavy sleeper…well, you’re going to be late, and your boss is not going to be happy. That alarm going off is always annoying. Nevertheless, we have somewhere we need to be, so that incessant, obnoxious, blaring alarm is a necessity.
So, what did people do before alarm clocks? They still had to be to work on time, but if they were a person who did not wake up at the crack of dawn, or to the rooster crowing, what then? Now imagine that your only alarm clock is the sun. If your room is dark, you could have a big problem. Well, there was a fix for that. During the early days of the Industrial Revolution and lasting into the beginnings of the 20th Century, as late as the 1920’s, workers had to get to work on time, and there were no alarm clocks. That’s where the “Knocker-Up” or “Knocker-Upper” came in. Don’t laugh, it was a real occupation in England and Ireland in the days before alarm clocks were affordable or reliable. A Knocker-up’s whole job was to go to the homes of the workers, and wake them up by shooting a pebble through a long tube, usually made of bamboo, and hitting the window pane to wake them up. Some used a long stick, and I can see that it might be helpful if the client was a particularly heavy sleeper. A few whacks on the window sill would wake most people up. The knocker-upper was required to stay outside the house and continue this action until the worker came to the window to show that they were up and would not go back to sleep. In return for their services, the knocker-up’s clients paid them a few pence a week. Not a high paying job for sure. The knocker-ups were usually elderly men and women, or sometimes even the police, because it was a way to supplement their income, as they could do it on their morning patrols.
As alarm clocks became readily available, the knocker-ups were no longer needed. Nevertheless, like many other occupations of old, that no longer exist, these have their origins deeply rooted in history when people worked many varying trades and had to improvise to accomplish their tasks. Some of these professions are not what historians or genealogists consider to be mainstream work, but they are a rather interesting thing to look back on. I think it would be odd to have such a strange occupation, but I can see that it was necessary, and it wouldn’t require much time out of your day. Still, one question remains for me. Who was supposed to wake up the knocker-up? They would obviously have to be awake before the others needed to be, and if they were like me, getting me up early is not in anyone’s best interest…just ask my husband, if he should wake me up before the alarm goes off. While this may have been an honorable occupation in those days, I think it would not have been the occupation for me.
So often, when we have a holiday, people tend to think that it is just another day to have a family dinner and a day off of work. Often, they are celebrating the day for the wrong reason, but not so today. Labor Day is a day for our nation to pay tribute to its workers. No nation can be strong if it has no workers. So, as a show of gratitude, Labor Day was set aside to allow a day of rest for the American worker. When our nation was founded, there was largely nothing here. The native Americans lived in Teepees, so they could be mobile. They needed to follow the buffalo because that was their food supply. But, we had come from nations where there were houses and farms, and ways to get the things we needed.
Nevertheless, this was a new nation, and it was going to take a lot of hard work to turn it into the great nation it has become. The work was going to be a lot of hard physical labor. We would also need those who would teach our children and others so that they could become doctors, scientists, inventors, and all the other jobs that would be needed to take this from a vast empty land, to a thriving nation that would be able to bring about the dreams that we all came over here to fulfill.
After a time of hard work, and much growth, the nation began to give increasing emphasis to a Labor Day holiday. It was decided that we, as a nation, needed to thank our laborers for all they had done to build this country. The first bill to be introduced was into the New York legislature, but the first state to pass a law was Oregon, on February 21, 1887. Over the course of that year, four more states passed legislation to honor laborers through a Labor Day holiday that was created by legislative enactment. Those states were Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania were also listed among the states honoring laborers with a Labor Day holiday. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The day began with a parade and continued on with lots of festivities. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883. That was rather odd, considering the fact that the holiday didn’t become official until 1887, and then it wasn’t in New York City. Later, like many holidays, it began to make less sense to keep the holiday on the fifth, and so the first Monday in September was chosen to be the permanent time to celebrate it. That makes sense when you think about it. If you are going to celebrate the laborers, give them a three day weekend. After all, that is cause for celebration for most laborers. Of course, as we all know, the holiday doesn’t give every worker the day off. That would be almost impossible for all the obvious reasons. Nevertheless, as Labor Day arrives, I hope that each and every worker knows that whether they get the day off or not, this grateful nation has set aside this day to celebrate them, and to thank them for making this nation great. Happy Labor Day to workers everywhere!!
Farm work in years gone by, was a much harder job than it is these days, but with the invention of machinery, things got easier. Still, most people couldn’t afford to own those machines in the early years, so they either did the work by hand, or hired the threshers to come and do it. Soon, most farmers were hiring the threshers to come. It was a lucrative business for someone who had enough money to buy a machine…or better yet, several. I know that those members of my family, who were farmers, did hire the threshers, or else, they had enough money to buy their own machines, but I have to think that most people in those early years did not think the machine was a good value, if a man was going to just use it on their own farm, so the work was mostly hired out.
When the threshers were scheduled to come to your farm, it was a big day. The women would get up early and start cooking for the men, who would be very hungry by lunch time. This was heavy work, even with the help of the machinery. Nevertheless, everyone was excited when the threshers came…from the adults to the little kids. I’m sure that being able to watch the big machines working was a novel thing in those early years, and nobody wanted to miss out. Not only that, but everyone wanted to get their picture taken with the workers too, so that they could say they had been there when they were working. It was almost like having a celebrity visit your house, I suppose. It is a day like no other in the year. Everyone wants to be in on all the excitement, and it’s hard to keep the little kids out of the way. Nevertheless, they had to stay out of the way, because the huge machines were also dangerous and could easily kill a small child.
With the excitement, however, comes hard work. When the threshers are done. The grain had to be bagged for storage or sale, and the straw stacked for use in the barns. Nevertheless, it took a lot less workers to harvest the crops, and many farm laborers were not happy about that, because they faced the loss of their jobs. I suppose that with every bit of progress designed to make our lives easier, comes the possibility of job loss. Every time a machine takes over the hard labor, a worker becomes unnecessary. People have to adapt and change, educating themselves to run the equipment so they can move into a job that takes more skill, and thus creates job security. I know that for the farmer, the machines were the best thing to come along. The wages they didn’t have to pay out to the laborers added up to pure profit for them, even with the cost of the threshers. It was a new era, and things would never be the same again.