Monday, February 21, 2011

The Real Life Value of Research

Today's New York Times reports that the last six unidentified victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire have been named, and at the centennial commemoration on March 25, the names of all 146 who died in the fire will be read aloud for the first time.

A complete list of the 146, mostly female, victims was never created until now. The most thorough list to date was published in 2003 by David Von Drehle in his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which included 140 names. At the time of the fire, 6 bodies were so badly charred that they could not be recognized; families who believed their loved ones had died in the fire could not positively claim the deceased, and those names were never included on official lists. The six "unknowns" were buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens. As the Times writes,
"the obscurity of their names is evidence of the times, when lives were lived quietly and people were forced by economic and familial circumstances to swiftly move on from tragedies."

Good old-fashioned research is what put the remaining 6 names on the list. Historian Michael Hirsch became interested in the fire because one of the victims had live on his street. Over a period of four years, he dove into primary source research, looking in over 30 newspapers from 1911 (some which had to be translated from Yiddish and Italian) for articles about families still missing relatives who had worked at the factory. Once he had names, he was able to go to census records, marriage licenses, and union charity records (more primary sources) to verify or eliminate those names from his list. He was finally able to contact descendents of three of the six, and found that those families mourn their ancestors as victims of the fire, though their names were not included among the dead.

I first became aware of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (known at the time as the Washington Place fire, for the factory's address) a couple of years ago when a student chose it as her American History research paper topic. It's a crucial turning point in labor laws, building codes and women's history, as outrage about working conditions and the fact that firemen found all the stairwell and exit doors locked, preventing employees from leaving before quitting time (and trapping them in the fatal inferno) mobilized public opinion for change. Another student is researching the same topic this year.

Mr. Hirsch's research will be part of the HBO documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire produced in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy (the DVD, a great secondary source, will be added to our library as soon as it's released).

A reminder that even when your research topic happened 100 years ago, new information is always possible. History often slows down, but it's never quite over.

Read more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by Dave von Drehle

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Sweatshop Reform in American History by Suzanne Lieurance

The Triangle Fire by Leon Stein

Threads and Flames: A Novel
by Esther Freisner

Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire

(website at Cornell's Keel Center for Labor Management)

Articles from the New York Times, March 25-April 3, 1911
(via ProQuest Historical Newspapers; you will need ProQuest ID & password for off-campus access)

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