16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:
Tuesday, March 25, 1911: I did a wee bit of work this morning. This afternoon I manufactured a rat, it’s quite harmless though, and of course I tried its effect, but it didn’t agree with my fastidious sister. I’m not sure whether I’ll wear it very much now or not.
Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:
Today Grandma is focused on her own small world. How can she make her hair look better? . . .and would a hair “rat” be the solution to her problems? Yet a horrific event was taking place less than 200 miles away in New York City–the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
(Please forgive me if this post just doesn’t work. Somehow things as trivial as a hair rat and as consequential as the fire don’t seem like they should be mixed together–but the diary entry seemed like it needed an explanation and the fire is just too important to ignore. )
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
A hundred years ago today 146 people, mostly young women, died when the building they worked in caught fire. The factory was on the ninth floor and some doors may have been locked to keep the women from stealing or sneaking out to take breaks.
The nation (including central Pennsylvania) was horrified by this disaster. A hundred years ago the small towns that dotted the Pennsylvania landscape were filled with factories that–like the Triangle Factory–sometimes had poor working conditions. An outcome of the fire was a mass outcry for better working conditions. This led to more support for unions and the passage of industrial safety laws that improved working conditions for all.
If you are interested in learning more about the fire and its outcomes, the Kheel Center at Cornell University has a really nice remembrance site with lots of photos and survivor interviews.
A ‘rat’ was used to make it look like a person had more hair than she really had. A rat (which was made out of one’s own hair) was tucked under hair when it was pinned up to make it look puffier.
Grandma would have collected her own hair by gathering shed hair that had accumulated in her brush. When she had enough hair she would have rolled it into an oblong and then placed it into a small piece of hair netting. A few stitches would have then held it all together.
Grandma must have been trying to create a stylish hairdo—I wonder if she ever actually used the rat since her sister apparently made fun of how she looked.