Recalling Past Events to Improve the Future: Let’s Make, Alter, and Repair Our Own Clothes

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:

Wednesday, April 2, 1913:  About the same as the other days.

Triangle Shirt Factory Fire--March 25, 1911 (photographer unknown)
Triangle Shirt Factory Fire–March 25, 1911 (photographer unknown)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I’d like to thank Kristin at Finding Eliza for sharing a link with me that I found fascinating and provided the inspiration for this post.

Since Grandma didn’t write much a hundred years ago today I’m going to write about an important issue both a hundred years ago and today: poor working conditions for garment workers.

On March 25, 2011 I wrote a post about the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City that killed many workers. The public outrage over that fire led to many safety and labor improvements in the garment industry (and other industries).

To commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, The Sewing Rebellion website included a downloadable pattern for the shirtwaist that was made by the Triangle Factory.

The Sewing Rebellion points out that many garment workers in other countries still work under very poor conditions, and encourages people to emancipate themselves from the global garment industry by learning how to alter, mend and make their own garments and accessories.

What goes around, comes around. It’s intriguing to think that instead of buying new clothes each season, maybe we could again learn how to make and alter our clothes.

Hair Rats and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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.

Triangle Shirt Factory Fire--March 25, 1911 (photographer unknown)


Hair Rats

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.

Temperance, Suffragettes, Pure Food, Anti-trust Legislation, and Patent Medicines

 January 10, 1911: Missing entry (Diary resumes on January 12)

 Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later: 

Times were different in 1911. It was before Prohibition, patent medicines containing opium could be purchased without a prescription, and women could not vote. Neither World War I nor World War II had yet occurred.

The unemployment rate 6.2%. Only 3% of the people in the United States had a college degree.

The suffragettes were organizing and marching for their rights—though it would be another 9 years before women won the right to vote.

William Taft was president. He is generally remembered for getting stuck in the White House bath tub. But, he also brought about positive changes by signing anti-trust legislation and breaking up monopolies.  

1911 was a heady time. Corporate greed, led by the robber barons had created many problems and inequities. Muckrakers–in today’s world they’d probably be called investigative reporters–used their pens to highlight the many problems and horrors that may have been caused by monopolies. And, the Standard Oil monopoly was finally broken up in 1911. (In history books this is generally seen as one of the key events in 1911).  

Hatchet-wielding temperance advocate Carrie Nation died on July 9, 1911, but many women’s clubs across the nation continued her efforts–though the law that enacted prohibition wasn’t passed until 1919.

Carrie Nation

Workers had few rights in 1911. Federal child labor laws would not be passed until 1918. Grandma lived in the agricultural portion of Northumberland County–but the far end of the county contained some of the largest anthracite coal mines in the US. Those mines–as well as other industries, but the mines were some of the most notorious–relied upon cheap child labor to do some of the jobs. Muckrakers and photographers were highlighting the horrors of the practice.

In March 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed 146 garment workers because the doors had been locked to keep the workers from leaving early. This led to laws requiring better factory safety standards.

A few years before 1911 Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which highlighted the horrible conditions in the Chicago meat-packing plants, and the unsafe, adulterated foods coming out of the plants.

In 1911 people were furious about chemically-laden foods and demanding safe, pure food that did not contain chemical preservatives or unfit materials. In July 1911 the use saccharin was banned by the US Department of Agriculture. (The decision would be reversed in 1912).    

Did these national issues affect Grandma? Or as a teen in rural Pennsylvania did she have little overt awareness of the bigger picture?