On November 26, 1910, a factory building in Newark, New Jersey caught on fire, killing 25 textile workers. This should have been a call to arms for workplace safety reform, but because it was in Newark and wealthy people did not see the people making their clothing die, nothing happened. The situation would be very different after those wealthy people did see workers die precisely four months later in New York during the Triangle Fire.
The working conditions of the Gilded Age were extremely dangerous. The 1842 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation established the doctrine of workplace risk, by which workers were said to have agreed to labor in unsafe conditions when they took the job and thus had no legal recourse to compensation if they were hurt or killed. This was one of a series of 19th century court decisions that allowed companies to do whatever they wanted in the name of progress, whether it was kill workers or decimate ecosystems. Workplace deaths became commonplace. Particularly in mining, workplace disasters that killed 100-200 workers, but more often, a dozen or more, would be all too common. Other industries would often kill workers one by one, through production that designs that threw a single worker into a sawblade every other day but would not kill the dozens needed to gain national headlines. By 1910, discontent with this systems had manifested itself that some judges and juries were beginning to find for dead and injured workers in court cases, scaring companies about their potential financial liability and pushing them toward recommending weak workers compensation laws to protect their interests. The first of these would pass in 1911.
The Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, which made nightgowns, occupied part of a four-story building in Newark. On November 26, 1910, at about 9:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the factory. Owned by a New York woman named Barbara Glass, this was a circa 1860 factory building that lacked any fire extinguishing technology. There were several different factory operations in the building. The first floor was a box factory and a machinist shop. On the second was another box factory while the third floor was a light bulb manufacturer. There were a total of about 200 workers in the building as a whole, of which 75 percent were women. The fire actually started in the light bulb factory. The description of this process makes you wonder why there weren’t more fires. Basically, to carbonize filaments for electric light bulbs, the workers connected the filaments to two poles in vulcanized cork placed in the mouth of a small metal can. An iron pipe connected this can to a can of gasoline used to carbonize the filaments with an electric current shooting through the gas-filled can for the carbonization. Someone would manually fill the gas cans with a big barrel of gasoline sitting outside the factory. Gasoline spilled on the floor and somehow, possibly because smoking was not uncommon in factories, the gas caught on fire. The workers immediately threw sand on the fire and it seemed to kill it, but in fact it was still smoldering and a few minutes later it exploded anew, jumping to the ceiling. There was a firehouse directly across the street from the factory, but even so there was nothing the firefighters could do to extinguish in flames. In fact, several firefighters were injured rescuing workers.
The workers on the bottom floors escaped, but not on the fourth floor. Six of the workers burned to death while 19 jumped. Forty more were injured while escaping. Most of these women were young. The oldest was 59-year old Catherine Weber while the youngest was Mildred Wolters, age 16. Three sisters by name of Millie, Tillie, and Dora Gottlieb all died. They were 19, 21, and 29 years old respectively.
As was not uncommon with these Gilded Age disasters, the fire got a lot of publicity, with national news stories covering it. But it did not lead to any broader calls for workplace safety reforms. The Progressive reformers trying to improve the lives of workers did act. The Women’s Trade Union League assigned Ida Taub to investigate the fire and testify before the relevant bodies. She sent a letter to the coroner’s jury, asking to be heard at the January hearings. They said yes, but almost immediately dismissed her as soon as she started. The foreman stated, “unless you have a complaint of criminal negligence on the part of an official, you had better take your stories to the Corporation Counsel and have him prosecute for violations.” The coroner’s jury decided, “They died from misadventure and accident.” And thus nothing was done. In the end, the Gilded Age doctrine of workplace risk still held sway, with most juries, even as late as 1910, finding in favor of widespread corporate murder of their employees.
The mayor set up a relief fund for the families of the deceased and contributed $100. There were some other contributions. And that was it. There was no meaningful compensation for survivors or the families. The fire did worry officials concerned with a similar situation in their city. The New York fire chief said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.” And indeed it would.
Ultimately this story and the story of Triangle are key to understanding not only the awful working conditions of the Gilded Age but how change occurs. As many scholars have pointed out, most workplace safety legislation in the United States only passes after a horrible disaster galvanizes attention. Often even that is not enough, as we see from the Newark fire. It wasn’t until Triangle, with the physical connection between workers and consumers becoming disturbingly manifest, that meaningful change took place. Today, that physical connection is largely impossible. At best, when workers die at the Kader factory or Rana Plaza, the best we can hope for is enough media attention that it stays in the news for a cycle. It took over 1100 deaths to move European companies to do anything about the terrible conditions of labor in modern sweatshops. For American companies, that was not enough. With us unable to even find Bangladesh on a map, there is certainly no Triangle-like pressure for force corporate reforms. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have worse workplace safety conditions than other nations…. Only workers’ lives we are talking about here.
So little has been written on the Newark fire, except in the context of mentioning it for Triangle, that I had to go hunt up old insurance industry journals from the time to write this post. The March 29, 1911 issue of The Insurance Press provided most of the details about the fire itself and what was happening in that factory building.
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