The 1911 Triangle Waist Factory fire elicited an outpouring of sympathy and helped humanize eastern European immigrant industrial workers in the eyes of affluent white Americans, but reforms aimed at bakeries demonized the workers who the country's single most important food. In today's post, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, chair of the Department of Politics at Whitman College and author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, looks at how reforms in food safety did little to help the workers in that industry, and how fear continues to adversely affect workers in today's food chain.
Last weekend, thousands of people attended events commemorating the one-hundred-year anniversary of Triangle Waist factory fire, which killed 146 young immigrant garment workers just off New York's Washington Square Park. The centennial commemorations, coming at a moment when worker organizing is vilified and under attack across the country, were a chance to remind Americans of the suffering and struggle it took to win basic workplace protections that we take for granted (at least for now).
Child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, sprinkler systems in office buildings, and limits on the length of the work week can all be traced back, at least in part, to the outpouring of anger and sympathy that followed the Triangle fire. As David von Drehle notes in his classic account of the fire and its aftermath, key provisions of the New Deal can even be traced to the tragedy of March 11, 1911. Union workers and non-union workers alike, we all owe a debt to the women who died in the Triangle fire and the labor reformers who took up their cause.
But there is also a lesson in the Triangle fire for millions of Americans who care about working to make a better food system. And, sadly, it is not so inspiring.
After the fire, 400,000 people—almost one in ten New Yorkers—took to the streets, joining a funeral procession for the fallen workers. In the weeks and months that followed, union and upper class social reformers demanded action. Pressure built on the government and businesses to do something to prevent similar tragedies. Charges were filed, blame circulated, and blue ribbon investigatory committees were appointed. Of all the inquiries, the most far-reaching was conducted by the newly created New York Factory Investigating Committee.
Garment factories figured prominently in the Committee's investigations, of course, but the Committee extended its mandate to include other industries—particularly small neighborhood bakeries. This focus might sound a little strange today, when we associate small local bakeries with community, pleasure, and authentic eating. But the reality then was a bit different.
Poorly capitalized and facing cutthroat competition, small immigrant bakeries slashed any cost possible. They stretched and whitened cheap flour with plaster of Paris, borax, ground bones, pipe clay, chalk, alum, and other nefarious compounds. They sold underweight loaves, and they worked laborers as hard as they could. Immigrant bakery employees typically worked 14+ hours a day during the week and 24 hours on Saturday. And they worked underground in damp, super-heated and unventilated cellar bake rooms. As the lyrics of an 1884 union anthem from St. Helen, Oregon, asked, "Full eighteen hours under the ground, Toiling and making bread! Shut off from air and light and sound, Are we alive or dead?"
Beginning in the 1870s, labor organizations were able to bring these abuses to light and raise public outcry about "Slavery in the Baker Shops." Sensational descriptions of unventilated and pestilent cellar bakeries filled local newspapers and echoed through the city's lecture halls. Sanitary inspectors painted pictures of dark, vermin-infested caves with raw sewage dripping from pipes into dough mixing troughs, street dust and horse manure blown onto dough, bread cooling on dirt floors, and whole families sleeping on rag piles in bakeries, alongside their chickens. In the worst cases, bakers worked ankle-deep in water and sewage when storms backed up city drains.
But the outcry was not what unions had hoped for. Rather than rousing sympathy for exploited workers, unions and their allies succeeded in focusing the country's outrage on dirty bread and the dirty hands that made it. By the time of the Triangle fire, small local bakeries were terrifying symbols of physical and social contagion in the minds of middle and upper class consumers.
Thus, although social reformers like Frances Perkins hoped that the tragedy's aftermath would spur changes for immigrant food workers, the Committee had other ideas.
When it came to garment factories and other industrial workplaces, the Committee worked to protect workers. When it came to bakeries, the Committee worked to protect consumers—often at the expense of bakery workers who were consistently reviled as the cause of New York's bread problem, rather than its biggest victims.
With a few exceptions, committee members darted around witnesses' appeals for workplace safety regulations, restating the bakery problem as a question of how best to control immigrant workers. One public health doctor who testified before the committee observed that nearly 100 percent of New York immigrant bakery workers showed signs of tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other lung infections. But the Factory Inspection Committee took this as evidence of bakers' poor hygiene, not unsafe working conditions. As city Health Commissioner Ernst Lederle argued, "cellar bakeries themselves were not the problem," the problem was that "the people were dirty and careless."
Anxiety about small bakeries was a gift to the country's growing number of large industrial bread manufacturers, and they fanned the flames of fear, running advertising about the risk of catching typhus and tuberculosis from immigrant bakery bread. But were small local bakeries really that unsafe for consumers?
Probably not—and this is what makes it interesting. Reading pages of testimony and the reports of sanitary inspectors one thing comes clear: while many other pieces of the American food supply—like milk and meat—were, in fact, threatened by germs, bread was fairly sanitary. Sensationalist reports of contaminated bread were just that: sensationalist.
Affluent New Yorkers were not really anxious about bread, they were anxious about unfamiliar immigrants touching food. The bread coming out of small local bakeries wasn't really a public health threat—at least not a threat to consumers.
But, as Frances Perkins argued at the Factory Investigating Committee hearings, bakeries were a threat to the health of bakery workers. Fixated on a potent combination of fear of germs and fear of immigrants (two things that often go together in America), social reformers had a hard time seeing this, however, even amidst the upwelling of sympathy following the Triangle fire.
While young female immigrant garment workers could be portrayed as helpless innocents (despite their active involvement in strikes and struggles to win rights), "swarthy" male bakery workers could not be allowed to touch the nation's food.
In the end, prompted by the Factory Investigating Committee, New York and jurisdictions around the country passed laws regulating sanitary conditions in small bakeries. The laws, designed to ease consumer anxieties, in some cases made life harder for immigrant bakery workers. For example, many cities passed sanitation regulations making it illegal for workers to sleep in bakeries, but didn't address the 14-18 hour workdays that prompted bakers to grab whatever sleep they could, wherever they could.
What lessons can we draw from this story today? As hard as it's been for American workers to win work place safety protections, it's been harder for food chain workers. It shouldn't be that difficult to see that improving conditions for food workers can only increase the safety of food for consumers, but racialized fears of immigrant hands touching the nation's sustenance often get in the way.