History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 April 2011

Give us Bread But Give us Roses

In the history hoyden imagination, it's often the clothes that propel us back in time and suggest alternative earlier selves. How many of you read (and/or write) Regency historicals because you can't resist the exquisite neo-Grecian draped simplicity of the early 1800s (not to speak of what the guys were wearing)?

Or are you the sort who'd rather imagine yourself moving to the swish of heavy Georgian silk?

Or... if you picture yourself as the smart, independent-minded woman you (or I) surely would have been 100 years ago, you might well see yourself in a shirtwaist and simple, straight dark skirt.

"Waist" was the word for blouse then, and though some of them were frilly, Gibson Girl concoctions like the ones to the left, others were simpler affairs, like the one below...

...which perhaps, if you were a recent immigrant to this country like my grandmothers in, say 1910, you might have worn to work at one of the 450 factories in New York City that made shirtwaists.

The look was wildly popular; the demand helped New York City become a fashion and garment-manufacturing mecca, and the style became a hallmark of young women who didn't have to depend upon a man (or not quite yet, anyway) for their subsistence. Or as my friend Jeff Weinstein put it last week in a wonderful blog post, shirtwaists were "turn-of-the-century blouses that had modernity written all over them, the free woman's uniform -- even if she couldn't vote."

"Think of them," Jeff urges, "as cotton Nikes." Both because of the freedom both products promise, and, he adds insightfully, because "in both cases it's been convenient to forget who makes them."

But this week, on this history lovers' blog, I hope we don't forget who made the shirtwaists, and the Nikes, and so much of the clothing we love, both from now and from then. Because last Friday was the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, when 146 workers, mostly girls and women like those in the picture below, died because the factory owners couldn't be bothered to provide the most minimal safety standards.

And after you read more about them in Jeff's superb longer piece here, (having been sure to check out the rest of the photographs he provides), remember as well that the exquisite muslins and dimities of Regency England came from Manchester, where in 1819, almost 100 years before the Triangle fire, a peaceful demonstration largely of mill-workers was attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry.

The rout is portrayed in this Cruikshank cartoon, which I got from Wikipedia, where I learned that of the 684 reported dead or wounded at what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, "...at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter's Field or later as a result of their wounds," and that "it has been estimated that less than 12% of the crowd was made up of females, suggesting that women were at significantly greater risk of injury than men by a factor of almost 3:1."

And where I also learned that at least part of that 12% represented "female reform societies... formed in northwest England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain" and that "many of them were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags."

I wish I could remember where I read that many of them also wore greenery in their hats, which detail I find overwhelmingly moving, and which probably had something to do with the title I gave this post, about the idealism and lyricism woven into these struggles, most beautifully captured in the poem, "Bread and Roses," soon to be a song, by James Oppenheim, published in 1911, a few months after the Triangle Fire, and associated with the successful strike in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and sung by a contingent of women workers:

(You can hear it sung here as you read it)

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

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Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Pam! The frivolous first--I love clothes, both in historical fiction and in modern life, and Regency/Napoleonic clothes are one of the things I love about writing about the era. I also have a weakness for empire waists in my own clothing.

On a more serious note, the Triangle fire is so horrific. I heard a fabulous, long piece about it on NPR some time ago. Peterloo was also horrific (and there were many women and children there). I reference Peterloo in "Mask of Night", and I was excited recently when I reader mentioned looking it up and reading more about it because of my book.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I saw the PBS documentary on the Triangle fire just recently and was very moved and saddened by it. One of the worst things to me was that it took place on a lovely sunny spring day and people out enjoying the park nearby could do nothing to help the women burning alive in the locked building.

I remember the reference to greenery in the hats at Peterloo but have no idea where I read it.

Off to read Jeff Weinstein's post now.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I saw that PBS documentary on the Triangle Fire, too, and found it so deeply disturbing and tragic.

I am glad 100 years later we are still talking about the Triangle Fire....keeping history alive, so we don't forget and do all we can to make sure it never, ever happens again.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the kind words, Tracy -- and someday I'll figure out how to write the book I want to write that ends at Peterloo.

Janet and Kathrynn, I haven't seen the PBS documentary but want to, especially since I took some of the info for this post off a WGBH web page devoted to the show.

But as for it never happening again, I recently learned that something very similar happened in Bangladesh last year -- from another recent radio documentary devoted to the event, this one on Pacifica radio. You can read a transcript by scrolling down to the text that starts On December 14th, 2010, just three months shy of the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, a fire broke out at the Hameem factory in Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka... here

11:07 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Marvelous post, Pam. I know the song "Bread and Roses" very well, having learned it in high school (the Fieldston school in Riverdale, NY) in a course I took called "American Protest Movements," taught by a British emigre (and as I learned when he died last year, a WWII hero), John Anthony Scott. Judy Collins made a fabulous recording of it, by the way. Tony Scott brought his guitar and taught the song to the class; and of course we studied the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its consequences and ramifications. I have not yet had the chance to see the PBS documentary.

And yes, the clothes indeed are one of the elements that drew me to writing historically set novels (and I'm the Georgian type, as opposed to the Regency; the silhouettes and fabrics of the earlier era call to me, and my own body type); I missed my post day on Wednesday because my scanner wasn't working, so next time around my post will feature costume elements from my theatre career and how that trajectory inevitably led me to historical writing.

5:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, if you get the chance, also watch the HBO documentary which takes a slighly more personal approach to the topic. I went to the 100th anniversary of the fire on last Friday near Washington Square and it was incredibly moving.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Tinky said...

This post was moving and covered so much! Here's a recipe to add to the mix! Thanks, Pam.

Tinky (I know it says Michael--too complicated to explain!)

12:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Lucky you, Leslie, to have learned all that in high school.

I wish I could have gone to the memorial, Elizabeth. Jeff went, and he felt very good about it. (And he's been one of my inspirations, writing about art and food, commodities and culture, all his adult life, while also spending many years as a union activis -- shop steward at the Village Voice.)

And speaking of "life's glories" -- Tinky, how nice to make your acquaintance in cyberspace. Check out Tinky's blog, folks, and read how she celebrated Labor Day by singing "Bread and Roses" AND sharing what looks like a fabulous recipe for a braided bread that contains basil pesto. Just lovely.

10:02 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

Loved this post, Pam. "Bread and Roses" is a song close to my heart because it is part of our commencement-day traditions at my alma mater (Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts). On graduation day, after the morning parade of alumnae (all dressed in white, the suffragette color), the seniors encircle the founder's grave with laurel branches and sing "Bread and Roses." As a senior, I thought it was an unbearably beautiful moment; attending my 25th reunion this last May, listening to the lyrics as sung by those young women, just beginning their life journeys and full of hope for the future, became a moment poignant beyond belief.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, RevMelinda. Yes, I know about the "Bread and Roses" tradition at Mt. Holyoke -- actually, from Tinky's blog -- she's got lovely pictures of it. Wow, you meet the most interesting people online (or at least in the historical romance community), sharing interests, commitments, passions.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Best Dressed for House Arrest said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Best Dressed for House Arrest said...

Thanks for this touching post. My grandmother was one of those sweated girls, living in a Brownsville cold water flat and sewing flowers on hats in a factory (eventually Lilly Daché). I thought I'd just wave, prompted also because I too remember John Anthony Scott's history classes at Fieldston. He introduced us to "history from below" before we knew that it was not the norm.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Waving back, Molly. Thanks for stopping by.

2:15 PM  

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