“[T]he narrative of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire has become a touchstone, and often a critique, of capitalism in the United States,” Peter Liebhold, a Smithsonian curator, wrote on the Smithsonian magazine website. It certainly has; the story of women and children locked inside their workplace as it went up in flames, burning or jumping to death by the dozens, does seem to bring out some troubling dynamics in the historic relationship between labor and capital.
But Liebhold was offering, or professing to offer, a different version of events. “Was History Fair to The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Owners?” the headline asked, in a phrasing perfectly designed to reverberate on social media. The details of the fire, Liebhold wrote, “show how history is trafficked sometimes in service to one agenda or another.”
This particular bit of history-writing trafficked its way to the top of the magazine’s most-read list. It didn’t do much to advance the rest of its agenda, though. Point by point, Liebhold went through the history of the fire, and established that the conventional understanding is…pretty much correct.
“Was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a sweatshop run by greedy owners?” Liebhold asked. The answer: it was “a modern factory for its time,” in which hundreds of workers, many as young as 14, did work that could have been “monotonous, grueling, dangerous and poorly paid.” Its owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were “hard-driving entrepreneurs who, like many other business owners, cut corners as they relentlessly pushed to grow their enterprise.”
“Had the owners followed the law, would lives have been spared?” he asked. Building codes at the time, Liebhold wrote, were inadequate, so “few laws and regulations were broken.” Except, that is, the part where the owners “were accused of locking the secondary exits (in order to stop employee theft), and were tried for manslaughter.”
Inside those parentheses—“in order to stop employee theft”—lay the monstrousness and inanity of Liebhold’s project. What Smithsonian was presenting was not a factual or even really a conceptual revisionism, but a moral revisionism—an attempt to find an angle from which obvious wrongdoing, which was understood as wrongdoing at the time, might not be wrong. So: yes, the escapes were locked, leaving people trapped to die in the fire, but the owners had a reason for locking them. They weren’t trying to kill anyone; they were just protecting their property in a way that ended up killing people.
This was not a very good way of debunking the claim that greed, or capitalism, was to blame for the deaths! But Liebhold was in the grip of a particular kind of closed-loop reasoning, in which the fact that things were bad means that they necessarily had to be bad, so that their badness was therefore not actually bad.
Thus we learned that it was commonplace for factory owners not to invest in fire suppression, and that workers of the 1910s were more interested in lobbying to cut their work week down to 52 hours than in asking for workplace safety enhancements, and that an emerging consumer market was eager to buy low-priced clothing—and that some of these circumstances continue to this very day (“even today 14-year-olds—and even preteens—can legally perform paid manual labor in the United States under certain conditions”). What about all the other fire traps in which 146 people didn’t die?
The idea here seemed to be to counter the error of presentism, in which we unfairly judge the people of the past by the standards of today. Who are we, in the secular security of the 21st century, to say that the conquistadors were bloodthirsty? How can we hold the Founding Fathers, men of their time, to blame for upholding and practicing slavery?
Often enough, this is just enforced naivete passing itself off as sophistication. There were 16th-century witnesses horrified by the deeds of the Spaniards in the New World, and there were 18th-century abolitionists arguing against the slaveholders, and people knew what the Triangle fire was about when it happened.
In Liebhold’s treatment, this was itself a moral error. The owners, he wrote, “became the scapegoats, even though a lack of government regulation and enforcement, as well as consumers demanding low prices could as easily have been blamed.”
And what became of those scapegoats, whom an ignorant public insisted on treating as monsters? Well, they were acquitted on the criminal charges. And then:
Blanck and Harris tried to pick up after the fire. They opened a new factory but their business was not as successful. In 1913 Blanck was arrested for locking a door during working hours in the new factory. He was convicted and fined $20.
In 1914, Blanck and Harris were caught sewing counterfeit National Consumer League anti-sweatshop labels into their shirtwaists. Around 1919 the business disbanded. Harris ran his own small shop until 1925 and Blanck set up a variety of new ventures with Normandie Waist the most successful.
So by the standards of the era, they were crooks. One of them was unconcerned enough about the mass death that two years later he got caught locking workers in again. And history remembers them as people who did evil, within a system that bred evil. Sometimes, history gets things right the first time around.