This Week In History: March 22-26

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, photo courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

While events may seem small at the time of their occurrence, moments can have a much farther reach than one would expect. This week in history, we will look at two events that ignited major movements in American history, and while small in scope, had lasting impacts to change the course of time. 

On March 22, 1765, 256 years ago, the British government imposed the Stamp Act on the English colonies of North America, taxing the purchase of all paper goods. 

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), known as the French and Indian War in American history books, was a long and expensive feud between the British and French Empires, taking place in both Europe and their overseas colonies in the Americas. Though the British emerged victorious, the government rang up a tremendous debt that needed to be paid. The British parliament looked to the 13 colonies and imposed a series of taxes to pay off the war. 

The Stamp Act followed three already unpopular taxes: the Sugar Act (1764), which taxed textiles, wines, coffee and sugar imports; the Currency Act (1764), which significantly devalued the paper money used by the colonists; and the Quartering Act (1765), which forced colonists to house British troops when they were deployed in North America. 

These taxes were widely unpopular primarily because colonists had no representation in British government. While the colonists saw themselves as British citizens like their brethren in the British Isles, they could not elect any members of Parliament to act on their behalf. Therefore, every act passed in government came without the consent from the people it was affecting. Colonists began questioning why a tiny island across the sea had so much control over their lives, and took to the streets to showcase their outrage. 

Over the course of the next few years, the British government would repeal virtually all of the hated taxes imposed on the colonies. Despite this, the damage had already been done and organizations like the Sons of Liberty had already organized, proposing wild ideas like the creation of a free and independent American nation. A decade later, this wild idea would be put to the test as 13 colonies would press their luck in a fight against a global superpower. 

On March 25, 1911, 110 years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 employees in downtown New York City. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was evolving into a thoroughly modern nation with urbanization and industrialization running rampant. Cities like New York beckoned to those who sought a better life, and people like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts proved that anyone could get lucky in America.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was evolving into a thoroughly modern nation with urbanization and industrialization running rampant. Cities like New York beckoned to those who sought a better life, and people like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts proved that anyone could get lucky in America. 

Not everyone shared in the wealth of these great industrialists however, in fact, such profits were made on the backs of the millions of workers employed at the factories and sweatshops nationwide. While the Vanderbilts were able to build summer mansions in Newport, employees back in the city were working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in exchange for meager wages and poor working conditions. 

On the morning of March 25, 400 employees entered the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of whom being teenage girls from poor Italian and Jewish immigrant families of the Lower East Side. A small waste bin fire ignited the unclean and cramped sewing stations of the eighth floor. The workers, who spoke almost no English, clamored to the exits, finding the stairwells locked and elevators out of order. Some employees resolved to jump out the windows, only to fall to their deaths, as the firefighting nets were not strong enough to save them. In the span of a half hour, more than one-third of the workers were dead, with the youngest victim being barely 14 years old. 

Days later, a march of 80,000 New Yorkers was organized to honor the lives lost and protest the atrocities committed by the factory owners. Grieving immigrant families marched uptown to make it known that they were part of America too and thus deserved the rights guaranteed to them. Though the company owners were charged for manslaughter, they were acquitted and carried on with business as usual. 

While this event was a horrible tragedy, it exposed the injustices committed against the working class, igniting the American labor reform movement. The years and decades to follow would see the implementation of fire and safety standards, a minimum working age, maximum working hours and the minimum wage, all of which aimed to aid the plight of the working family and ensure a disaster like the Triangle fire would never happen again. 

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