Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Legacy Shows How Spoiled Today's Teens Are

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fireToday is more than the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Today, we as parents get a sad but solid edge on teenagers. Because if there's one conversation that makes you feel more like your mother than any other, it's the one where you have to tell your teen they just don't know HOW good they have it today.

To which they'll predictably respond, "You're ruining my life," or something to that effect, storm off, slam their door, and jump on Facebook to tell the rest of the world how much you suck. Oh, they're lucky they're cute, huh? I would prefer my daughter and I skip that phase entirely, thank you very much!


But I'll be honest. It's one conversation I feel better prepared to tackle after hours of sifting through stories about the fire at a New York City factory on March 25, 1911 that changed governance of industry forever. One of the saddest days in American history is good fodder, Mom and Dad.

What made me realize this wasn't the tales of fire codes or OSHA. Good stuff for the American worker, but that's too far off for our kids. Remember, they think they're invincible at this age. The idea that there are on-the-job safety laws won't affect them now.

No, the one story in the last few weeks that gave me pause was Threads and Flames, a young adult novel (OK, I admit it, I'm a sucker for the YA genre) about a teenage girl working for the Triangle Shirtwaist company at the time of the fire. The fictionalized account of the fire struck me for one simple reason: it's about a kid, a teenager, who, unlike our kids, was already working in a factory for more than a dozen hours a day. The character was there on the day when 146 people were killed in what remains one of the worst industrial accidents in America.

And in the real life version, there were dozens of teenagers -- girls as young as 11, 13, all working to help their families -- who perished in that fire. Just reading the names and ages made me shiver. And that's what kids need to hear about -- something that relates to them. A kid just their age!

Today, news that kids were working in a factory would send the Department of Labor storming in and draw out the media. In 1911, that was what the girls were supposed to be doing. They didn't get to be kids. They had to grow up, get jobs, work long hours in inhumane conditions. And no one cared. 

This is the lesson to share with our kids today. Not what happened but who.

Because we, as a nation, care about kids now in a way they didn't 100 years ago. You'll never find our 13-year-olds working their fingers to the bone in some factory. You won't count them among the dead at an industrial accident. Triangle was just the beginning, but it was a part of the change at the way America looked at industry. Enhanced government oversight would eventually result in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which finally put restrictions on child labor in 1938.

One hundred years ago today, dozens of kids lost their lives in a New York City factory because they were stuck being adult before their time. And thanks to kids like them, our kids can just be kids.


Image via Family Tree Magazine/Flickr

Disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of Threads and Flames.

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