Archive for March, 2011

Sweden’s 17th century warship Vasa gets a tuneup

Friday, March 11th, 2011

King Gustav II Adolf of SwedenThe Vasa was a grand ship commissioned in 1625 by Sweden’s King Gustav II Adolf to be the core of a new fleet of larger, more imposing warships that would dominate the Baltic theater during the Thirty Years’ War. By all accounts the four other royal ships fulfilled their commission ably until the 1660s, but Vasa, poor thing, never even made it a nautical mile from the dock on her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628.

The ship was top heavy and unstable, but the King kept sending letters to the builders urging them to get Vasa on the water, so even though the builders and sailors knew there was going to be trouble, they set sail anyway. As soon as they encountered wind with more force than a light breeze, the ship heeled on the port side, taking in water through the gun ports. Once the water rushed in, it was all over. The ship sank 105 feet to the sea floor, only 390 feet from the shore, in full view of the assembled dignitaries from many countries, including ones that might have reason to delight in this dramatic failure of Swedish sea power. Despite being so close to land and in quick reach of a number of vessels, an estimated 30 to 50 men went down with the ship.

There were several attempts to salvage the wreck right after it sank, but they failed. In 1664, a salvage operation retrieved over 50 of Vasa‘s valuable bronze cannons, tearing up the wood from the deck above the guns in the process. After that, the wreck was left pretty much alone to be scoured by the hard Stockholm bay currents, and abraded and dumped on by subsequent ships for 300 years.

In 1956, amateur archaeologist Anders Franzén found Vasa again, and museums, the Swedish Navy, historical societies all put their heads together to figure out how to raise and preserve the wreck. Ultimately, they used a system not all that different from what they tried to do in the 17th century: tunnels were dug underneath the ship and cables threaded through to pontoons on either side. Over the course of multiple lifts between 1959 and 1961, Vasa was gradually raised, until on April 24th, 1961, again before an audience of thousands present and countless more television viewers, the ship broke the surface.

Here’s some contemporary footage of the salvage:

The ship was kept in a shipyard that served as a provisional museum for decades while archaeologists and conservators cleaned and preserved it. There Vasa was sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG), a polymer that replaces the water in wood ensuring it doesn’t warp, crack or shrink when it dries, for 17 years straight.

In 1990, the new Vasa Museum where the ship would be conserved on display opened to the public. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vasa‘s return to the surface, the museum plans a variety of events to celebrate.

While they’re at it, the staff will give Vasa a thorough tuneup. It will be given an anti-corrosion treatment, and in a project that will take five years to complete, all the 5,000 iron bolts keeping its hull together will be replaced with stainless steel ones, made from a non-oxidizing alloy of chrome and nickel.

“We need to remove the iron and the rust from inside the wood and replace (the bolts) by stainless steel that will not leak into the wood,” Vasa Museum head Marika Hedin said.

The Vasa’s hull was weakened by the pollution it was exposed to during the 333 years it spent on the Baltic Sea seabed after sinking in the Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage. The pollution, combined with the iron of the original bolts and rust, provoke “a chemical reaction that destroys the wood,” Hedin explained. […]

Magnus Olofsson, who is in charge of the ship’s conservation, explained the Vasa was built with many layers of oak, and that some of the bolts had to be two meters long, “to keep each piece of wood in the right place.”

Behold Marika Hedin being extremely cool and getting to use very large specialized machinery to shoot new bolts into the hull of a 17th century Swedish warship:

Marika Hedin replacing rusted bolts on the Vasa Marika Hedin replacing rusted bolts on the Vasa

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Only true color pictures of 1906 Frisco quake found

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The Smithsonian has discovered color pictures of San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake taken by photographic innovator Frederick Eugene Ives. They are the earliest color pictures of San Francisco ever, and the only true color ones of the earthquake-devastated city (some hand-tinted pictures exist, but they were taken in black and white and then color was applied after they were printed).

Ives took many of the pictures from the roof of the Hotel Majestic on Sutter Street, where he stayed in October of 1906, six months after the April earthquake. Experts think at least some of the pictures might have been taken over an earlier trip because the city is still laid to waste. There are scorched ruins, piles of rubble, whole blocks flattened like pancakes, a skyline full of rickety-looking swiss cheese buildings.

Frederick Ives took the pictures using a stereoscopic process of his invention called the Krömgram. The process used mirrors and filters to make separate slides for each primary color in the spectrum. Then the slides were bound together in a specific order, and that package would be seen through a Krömgram viewing device.

Taking the pictures required operating a cumbersome machine and very, very long exposures. The roof of the hotel and the almost empty streets provided him with the city equivalent of a still life, so he was able to take this color pair of pictures which customers would then view in 3D by looking at them through the viewing device. Although it doubtless must have been an arresting visual experience, the Krömgram was doomed by its complexity and huge expense (a viewing device cost $50 back then, $1000 in today’s money).

The pictures were found by Anthony Brooks, a volunteer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who was going through a collection of glass plate pictures that Ives’ son Herbert had donated to the Smithsonian. Brooks has a personal interest in early color photography, so he recognized that these pictures were something special.

National Museum of American History restorers were able to piece together the delicate glass plates so we can see the pictures as they would have looked through the Krömgram.

Sutter St. Looking East from Top of Majestic Hall, Oct. 1906, Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Market St. Flood Bldg., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Fr. Van Ness Ave. City Hall R., 1906, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Fr. near City Hall looking NE, by Frederick Eugene Ives, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

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Smoking left notches in Victorian teeth

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The wide prevalence of smoking in Victorian England left smokers’ teeth in as bad a condition as it left their lungs. The Museum of London studied the skeletal remains of people buried in a Victorian cemetery in Whitechapel, east London, in the mid-19th century, and found that the majority had some dental deformity caused by smoking from clay pipes. Two front teeth, sometimes four, had grooves worn into them from long term pipe smoking.

19th century skull with pipe notch center rightOsteological analysis of 268 adults buried between 1843 and 1854 found that some disfigurement had occurred in 92 percent of adults exhumed, while wear associated with habitual use of pipes was evident in 23 percent.

“In many cases, a clear circular “hole’ was evident when the upper and lower jaws were closed,” said Donald Walker, human osteologist at Museum of London Archaeology Service.

Males were affected far more frequently than females.

Of course many of these teeth were also stained brown on the inside, and the adult skeletons with pipe notches also had a higher prevalence of lesions inside the surface of the ribs, most likely from lung disease. Even children weren’t left unscathed. The skeletons of young adults showed evidence of pipe notches, which since the notches take a few years to develop means they had taken up smoking as children to have already worn grooves into their incisors.

Clay pipes were the primary smoking device for people of all classes from the mid-16th century when tobacco was first introduced to England by explorers like Walter Raleigh, who was himself an inveterate pipe smoker. By 1614, there were already 7,000 tobacconists in London and that number would only increase until the late 19th century. Cheap clay pipes were ubiquitous and disposable, more like cigarette butts than pipes today. The Thames mudlarks find clay pipes by the score.

It wasn’t until 1881 when James Bonsack invented a machine that would roll cigarettes cheaply and in large quantities that the pipe and the teeth notches it caused fell by the wayside.

"The Legal Gentleman named Brass" illustration from Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop", 1840

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British Museum buys Assyrian ivories Agatha Christie cleaned with face cream

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

In 1929, fresh off an acrimonious divorce from her first husband Archibald, Agatha Christie visited the excavations at the ancient city of Ur, in what is today Iraq. Renowned British archaeologist Leonard Woolley led the joint expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum of Pennsylvania over the twelve years (1922–34) of the excavation, and he was not welcoming of tourists. Agatha Christie was an exception, however, mainly because Leonard’s wife Katharine was a huge fan of the writer.

Katharine Woolley invited her back for a follow-up visit in 1930, and sent apprentice archaeologist Max Mallowan to show her the sights, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. When Christie had to return home urgently because her daughter was ill, Mallowan accompanied her back to England. A few months later, Max returned again to England and this time he asked Agatha to marry him. She accepted.

Max Mallowan, Barbara Campbell Thompson and Agatha Christie visiting Nimrud during the excavation at Nineveh in 1931-32Mallowan decided to make that season of excavations at Ur his last, looking for work on archaeological sites that would let Agatha work alongside him. In 1931 they would work their first dig together at Nineveh. Agatha didn’t just sit on the patio fanning herself. She got her hands dirty working as a junior assistant, cleaning, repairing and cataloging artifacts. For decades after that (with a break for World War II) they would work archaeological digs all over Iraq and Syria, making major discoveries.

In 1949, Mallowan reopened excavations on the site of Nimrud, the city that had once been the capital of the Assyrian Emprire at its peak under King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.). Royal palaces had been found on the site in the mid-19th century — archaeologist Henry Layard had famously shipped giant winged stone bulls and lions from Nimrud to the British Museum — but it had been abandoned by archaeologists from 1879 onwards. Mallowan thought there was more to be found, and he was right.

Nimrud ivoryHe found thousands of ivory carvings in storage rooms and at the bottom of wells, many of them with scorch marks from the destruction of the palace by the Medes and Persians in the late seventh century BC.

Agatha appears to have played an important role in the conservation of these ivory carvings. Mallowan said in his memoirs that it was Agatha’s idea to keep the pieces that had been found in the sludge at the bottom of the well moist and only gradually introduce them to the dry desert air. She described her cleaning process in her An Autobiography published in 1977, the year after her death:

I had my part in cleaning many of them. I had my own favourite tools … an orange stick, possibly a very fine knitting needle – one season a dentist’s tool which he lent, or rather gave me, and a jar of cosmetic face cream, which I found more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dirt out of the crevices without harming the friable ivory. In fact there was such a run on my face cream that there was nothing left for my poor old face after a couple of weeks!

Nimrud ivory, Phoenician origin, remains of gold and lapis lazuli decoration still visibleObviously curators today don’t recommend the face cream and knitting needle approach to cleaning ancient ivory, but it doesn’t seem to have harmed the very delicate pieces which still show signs of the gold foil and precious stones that used to festoon them before they were stripped and tossed in storage at some point in their ancient past. They are considered the finest collection of decorative ivories ever discovered in the Middle East.

Most of the ivories returned to storage after their excavation. The finds were divided between Iraq and Britain, with the British share of the spoils ending up in storage first at the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq), then at the British Museum. They were never put on display.

Now thanks to a fundraising drive that raised £750,000 ($1.2 million) in six months, plus grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund, the British Museum has paid £1.2 million ($2 million) for 6,000 of the Nimrud ivory pieces. One thousand is numbered individual pieces; 5,000 are fragments of larger pieces.

The best of the collection will go on display in the British Museum’s Middle East section starting next week.

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Stolen Chinese antiquities seized at Newark Airport

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Federal agents from Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officers confiscated two ancient Chinese artifacts that were being smuggled into the country through Newark Liberty International Airport. One is a 5,000-year-old prehistoric pot, the other a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) horse-and-rider figurine. Both are in excellent condition.

“The illegal trade of cultural antiquities is one that affects us all,” U.S. Customs Director Robert E. Perez said in the statement. He said the joint team is “dedicated to intercepting these items and ensuring their safe return to their rightful owners.”

Prehistoric Chinese pot, ca. 5,000 years old Tang Dynasty horse and rider

Customs and Border Protection have seized five other stolen Chinese artifacts in New York and New Jersey just over the past year. The Chinese antiquities market is very hot right now thanks to the recent proliferation of moneyed Chinese buyers looking to reclaim cultural patrimony looted during foreign invasions and revolutionary fervor. It makes sense that the black market trade in smuggled stolen goods would be hot right now too.

Also, last year the United States and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding agreeing to step up efforts on both sides to stem the illicit trade in Chinese antiquities.

The trade agreement restricts the importation to the U.S. of cultural and archaeological materials from the Paleolithic through the Tang Dynasty (75,000 B.C.–A.D. 907), as well as monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old. (A detailed list was published by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Treasury in the Federal Register on January 16, 2009.) Such archaeological material originating in China can only come into the U.S if accompanied by a valid export permit or other appropriate documentation from the Chinese government.

In addition to the import restrictions, the MOU requires that both countries take a number of steps. China, for example, pledges to expand efforts to educate its citizens about the importance of safeguarding its rich cultural heritage, to increase funding and other resources for protecting cultural heritage, and to block looted artifacts from entering the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions, where much of the material currently comes onto the art market. The U.S. pledges technical assistance to China in protecting its cultural heritage. The agreement also outlines steps to foster loans to museums in the U.S., scholarly collaboration among archaeologists from both countries, and exchange of faculty and students. Both countries commit to educating their customs officers about cultural heritage and Chinese archaeological material. Both agree to share information that helps enforce applicable laws and regulations to reduce illicit trafficking in cultural property.

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Happy birthday, Michelangelo!

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Painter, architect, sculptor and all-around Renaissance Man Michelangelo Buonarotti was born 536 years ago today. Since it’s his birthday and he always considered his foremost talent to be in sculpture despite his fame as a painter, for a present I’m making this entry just about his skill as a stone carver.

His affinity for sculpture was established very early in his life. After Michelangelo’s mother died when he was six, he went to live with a stonecutter and his wife which is where he first began to learn how to chisel rock. His father sent him to school for a while after that, but Michelangelo was only interested in art, so by the time he was 13 he was apprenticed to artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. The boy’s genius was immediately clear. The next year, when he was only 14, Ghirlandaio began to pay him artist wages instead of apprentice wages.

He made this when he was 17 attending the Medici’s Humanist academy in Florence:

Michelangelo "Battle of the Centaurs" relief, 1492

It’s the last work he did at the Medici court — Lorenzo died shortly after it was completed — and it’s the first sculpture where the chisel marks are clearly left behind. There’s some debate on whether this was an intentional “unfinished” style or just plain unfinished, but Michelangelo considered it the greatest of his early pieces and it presages the boundary-busting three-dimensionality of his sculptures.

Interesting fun fact about Michelangelo’s sculptural style: since the ancient Greeks, sculptors had chiseled all around a block of stone to create a well-proportioned piece. Michelangelo saw the figure entire trapped in the stone, so he didn’t go around and around. He started at the front and carved all the way to the back, liberating the character from its marble prison. He did it with a speed and accuracy that left his contemporaries slack-jawed.

He was so famous that tourists would go see him work just like they’d visit the Colosseum. A French visitor to Rome during the last years of Michelangelo’s life (he died in 1564) described with awe watching the master, now over 80 years old, at work.

He can hammer more chips out of very hard marble in fifteen minutes than three young stonecarvers can do in three or four hours. It has to be seen to be believed. He went at it with such fury and impetuosity that I thought the whole work would be knocked to pieces. He struck off with one blow chips three or four inches thick, so close to the mark that, if he had gone just a fraction beyond, he would have ruined the entire work.

By then he had been chief architect of St. Peter’s basilica for almost twenty years, since 1546. He designed the famous dome. He would die three weeks before his 88th birthday. The dome wasn’t finished yet, but construction on the lower ring of the cupola had begun so he knew it was too late for them to switch plans and his design would be built.

Michelangelo’s fame was such that he was the first artist to have a biography written about him while he was still alive. The first was a chapter in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists which you can and should read here (first edition published 1550, so long before Michelangelo died.) This site has snippets of Vasari’s biography accompanied by pictures of the works described.

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Pompeii exhibit features body casts, vibrating floors

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Funerary statue and garden fresco from Pompeii“Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius” opened Friday at New York City’s Discovery Times Square museum. It boasts the largest collection of plaster body casts ever displayed at one time, plus everyday items like carbonized food and luxury items like elaborate frescoes and statuary.

The body casts were first made by late 19th century archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. When he was excavating Pompeii, he noticed body-shaped cavities in the volcanic stone. When Vesuvius rained pumice and ash on the town, bodies were trapped. Over time the bodies decomposed, but the cavities that had hardened around them remained intact. Fiorelli figured out he could pour liquid plaster into the cavities, then when the plaster dried, just break the pumice stone that surrounded it.

This method has left us with over a thousand whole-body death masks, basically, of Pompeiian men, women, children, dogs, even a pig, captured at the moment of death. The exhibit includes body casts of an entire family that was found together in a basement room of the House of the Gold Bracelet. The youngest child of the family was covered in such fine ash that you can actually make out his eyelashes.

Another cast in the exhibit is not from Pompeii, but from the neighboring town of Herculaneum. It’s a cast of 32 skeletons found clustered together on the seashore in 1982, nine of them children under the age of 12. Pompeii left no skeletal remains, but from 1982 to 2002, 350 skeletons would be found on the Herculaneum beach.

The exhibit doesn’t just greet you at the door with mounds of bodies, though. The idea is to give you a sense of regular life in Pompeii first. You see decorative art like frescoes and mosaics, gladiator helmets, graffiti, even a little sprinkling of erotic art discreetly tucked away in corners.

Then you walk into a bare room and the doors close behind you. A timelapse representation of Vesuvius’ eruption is projected on a screen, displaying an accelerated view of the day and a half from the first pop to the final destruction of the town. As the volcanic action increases, the walls and floors vibrate to keep pace until finally it all goes dark. The walls of the room open, and you find yourself in a dark, blue-lit gallery filled with the plaster body casts.

Sure, it’s gimmicky but I cannot deny it sounds pretty awesome. The tickets are pricey ($25 for an adult). Some part of that is meant to go to maintenance for Pompeii’s crumbling sites, at least.

Here’s a video from Discovery News that shows some of the objects on display.

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Mudlarking about the Thames

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Steve Brooker mudlarkingReuters has a riveting profile of official Society of Thames Mudlark Steve Brooker. Mudlarks are an elite cadre of treasure hunters licensed by the Port of London Authority to search the muddy banks of the Thames in the old city for historical artifacts. Although anybody can scratch the surface of the low-tide shore, the most prime historical real estate — the north bank of the Thames between Westminster and the Tower of London which has hosted docking points for occupiers and traders since Roman days — is reserved for the licensed mudlarks.

The Society of Thames Mudlarks was founded in 1980, but the name and profession go back to the late 18th century. Mudlarks back then were mainly children who scavenged the shore for anything of monetary value. Although they could find enough that was salable to not starve to death and at least they had some degree of independence, it was dangerous, filthy work. Untreated sewage, dead bodies, broken glass: when you’re barefoot and in rags, these are not fun things to have to wade through.

Today’s mudlarks have it comparatively easy. They are volunteers armed with a passion for history and comfy hip waders. They assiduously record everything they find. Any objects more than 300 years old go to the Museum of London to be logged. Most of their discoveries are returned to them after documentation, but particularly important finds are kept for research and display. For instance, one of Steve Brooker’s most compelling finds was a complete ball and chain, sans the leg it once shackled, that is now on display at the Museum of London Docklands.

Brooker is a window-fitter by trade. He is a self-taught expert in the history of London, and a highly valued one.

Kate Sumnall, an archaeologist and Finds Liaison Officer with the Museum of London who is charged with identifying mudlark finds says their work is “phenomenally important”.

“They have made a huge contribution by donating artefacts to us, but also in terms of the knowledge they bring because they have been showing us their finds for such a long time — I often learn from them,” she told Reuters.

“The medieval toys and pilgrim badges (they have found) are two of the key collections where their contributions have really helped change archaeological interpretation of the past.”

Sumnall estimates that the Museum of London gets 500 objects of historical significance a year from the mudlarks, including everything from medieval pottery to Viking decorative mounts to Roman leather shoes. Since the Thames was a garbage dump for as long as there have been people living on its banks, the mudlarks uncover these elements of everyday life from hundreds and thousands of years ago all the time. When they dig through the mud, they’re excavating an extended, intensely varied midden heap.

Coins, tokens and buttons found in the Thames mudSo even though Britain’s Treasure Act applies to their finds — anything older than 300 years that contains more than 10% gold or silver belongs to the crown which will compensate the finder and landowner for its value — mudlarks aren’t really hunting for that kind of treasure. It’s items that have a clear connection to the past, like the low-value trading tokens that identify their former owners, that inspire excitement.

Not that it’s all fun and games. It’s actually very hard, often dangerous work. The river has extreme tides, so those exposed muddy shores can find themselves filling up with high tide very quickly. Even the fully exposed mud can suck you down like quicksand if it’s thoroughly water saturated.

Brooker’s adventures larking about in the mud of the Thames are being televised. Mud Men airs on the UK History Channel and it sounds way too cool to end up on the US schedule. Brooker takes a radio personality with him on his digs, and visiting experts provide commentary on the finds and historical context. We get Ax Men instead. :blankstare:

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Hawass resigns; looting far worse than initially stated

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The New York Times reports that as of today, Zahi Hawass has resigned his position as Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities. The position and ministry were created by former President Hosni Mubarak to form part of a new putatively reformist cabinet, but since Hawass had been Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (in substance Egypt’s dictator of antiquities) for 20 years, it didn’t seem to alter his job description very much.

After Mubarak was deposed, Hawass became a target for protesters. Hundreds of unemployed archaeologists held a rally at the Ministry of Antiquities gates protesting the corruption and nepotism rife in the ministry. The tourism industry is a huge foreign cash cow for the country, protesters pointed out, but there is no public accounting of where it all goes.

Zahi Hawass gave intimations he might take this step in a phone interview on Tuesday when he said his ministry was incapable of protecting Egypt’s ancient sites and museums, a full 180 from his earlier statements downplaying the looting in the wake of the protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak’s government.

In a telephone interview he said that thieves on Monday had broken into two warehouses near the pyramids of Giza that held artifacts excavated in the early 20th century. It was not yet clear what had been taken. He said that the police were no longer protecting Egypt’s monuments and that his own staff was unarmed and unable to stop attacks.

“During the revolution nothing happened, but after the revolution many things are happening everywhere,” Mr. Hawass said. “People building houses, taking archaeological land, excavating at night — it’s like a nightmare, and I don’t know what I can do.”

The decision also comes in the wake of an allegation of misconduct far worse than self-promotional dishonesty. Apparently, Egyptian Manager of Antiquity Locations Nour el din Abdel Samad alleged in an interview (YouTube of interview in Arabic here, a translation that I can’t vouch for here) that Hawass had pocketed the money from fictitious building projects. He also suggested that Hawass covered up, and possibly profited from, thefts of artifacts from the Cairo Museum. He then tied it all together with some Zionist conspiracy stuff that is pretty unhinged, so who knows what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Hawass responded with a blog post in which he responded to the accusations by saying that they only strengthened his resolve to remain on the job.

Throughout this ordeal, there have been people who have been completely dishonest, and have tried, through their statements, to make the situation worse, in some cases by accusing me (in vague terms) of various inappropriate or even illegal behaviors. Of course, as even these people themselves know, none of these accusations has any basis in reality. When I was first appointed Minister of Antiquities Affairs, I thought my tenure might be very short, given the political situation. I did not care; I was only glad that the antiquities service had finally been given independence, and would no longer be under the Ministry of Culture. However, these attacks have convinced me that it is important for me to stay, so that I can continue to do everything in my power to protect Egypt’s cultural heritage. I have written to Egypt’s attorney general, asking him to look into some of the false accusations that have been made against me. I believe that addressing these issues will help stabilize the Ministry of Antiquities Affairs.

Today Hawass updated his blog again, only this time with a long list of damaged and looted sites that Egypt’s authorities have been unable to secure. He includes dire news of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s storage warehouse storing artifacts from the museum team’s excavation in Dahshur. Hawass reports it was attacked twice and that looters were able to overpower and tie up the guards. The news of his resignation followed.

Since Egypt’s prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, also resigned today, the army has asked the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, to form an interim cabinet, of course including a replacement for Hawass. We’ll see how it all pans out.

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The centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Police officer and onlookers with bodies of Triangle fire victims, looking up at workers jumping out of burning Asch BuildingMarch 25, 2011 will be the hundredth anniversary of the tragic fire at Greenwich Village’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which saw 146 young men, women and children die burned, or trampled, or from hurling themselves out of the top stories’ windows in a desperate attempt to flee the fire. It was New York City’s largest workplace disaster until 9/11.

Firefighters spray tons of water on the Triangle fireA huge crowd of onlookers bore horrified witness to a carnage that even the remarkably swift action of firefighters (it only took them a few minutes to get there and half an hour to put out the fire) could not prevent. The ladders on their engines only reached the 6th floor, and the water pumps of the era weren’t strong enough to force water to the top of the building.

Women at their sewing stations in the Triangle Shirtwaist FactoryOwned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Triangle Factory in the Asch Building was notorious for dangerous working conditions. Shirtwaists, women’s blouses that were popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, were made in rooms full of young, mainly female immigrants. They were crammed back to back along 75-foot tables. There were work baskets filled with loose cotton scraps in the aisles and on the tables. These were a major fire hazard because loosely-packed pieces of cotton ignite immediately into a blaze; there’s no slow burn or delicate plumes of smoke to warn you.

Twisted and broken fire escape ladderThe owners locked the back exit to prevent workers from absconding with a few bucks worth of fabric or thread, leaving only one way out in case of emergency, plus a rickety fire escape ladder that stopped two stories before the ground. The fire escape ladder would buckle under the weight of the fleeing workers, dropping them to a crushing death.

Blanck and Harris also had an enormously shady record of multiple early morning fires breaking out in two different factory locations. Said early morning fires just happened to coincide with the close of the peak shirtwaist selling season, thus destroying their inventory surplus while more than covering their losses with the payout from their insurance.

In 1909, 400 Triangle Factory employees had walked out, inspiring 20,000 garment workers from all over the city to follow in a general strike on November 23. Blanck and Harris hired prostitutes as scab workers and their pimps and the police to taunt and beat on the picketing workers. When in 1910 the cloakmakers joined the strike, industry and labor leaders signed an agreement that in theory established a grievance system in the garment industry. In practice, unscrupulous owners like Max Blanck and Isaac Harris just ignored it.

Workers on the ninth floor had their escape blocked by machines, chairs, work basketsIn the wake of the horrific deaths, on April 11th Harris and Blanck were indicted on seven counts of second degree manslaughter on the grounds that it was a violation of the Labor Code to keep a door locked during working hours. On December 27th, a jury acquitted of them of all charges, even though multiple witnesses testified that the Washington St. exit door was locked leaving workers with no escape when the Greene St. exit was choked with fire. The owners’ defense attorney, Max Steuer, cast doubt on the testimony by making the main witness, Kate Alterman, repeat her story over and over, then pointing to her repetition of certain words and phrases as the mark of memorization or coaching. He suggested a socialist conspiracy was afoot, a conspiracy that also explained the discovery of the actual locked lock from the Washington St. door 16 days after the fire.

In the end, Blanck and Harris made a tidy profit from the hideous death of 146 people. They filed insurance claims far in excess of their monetary losses and Steuer scared the insurance companies into settling for reimbursement in the amount of $60,000 above the documented loss. Steuer then prevented any of the Triangle Factory fire victims or survivors from collecting any of it. Blanck and Harris made $400 for every dead body.

Twenty-three civil suits were filed against them. They settled those lawsuits on March 11, 1914, almost three years to the day after the fire, with a payment of $75 per dead body. The year before that in the summer of 1913, Max Blanck had been arrested for locking yet another factory door. He got off with a $20 fine and an apology from the judge for having troubled him.

The tragedy of the fire and the sham of an aftermath galvanized the labor movement in New York City. The New York State Legislature created an investigating committee to report on factory conditions and how sanitation and worker safety issues could be addressed. Its 1915 report would be key to New York’s new laws that made the state one of the most progressive in the country in terms of labor relations.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration, created 60 years after the fire, has a memorial page on its website in honor of the anniversary of the tragedy. The Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Kheel Center at Cornell University has an exceptional collection of photographs and primary sources on the fire and its aftermath.

On Monday PBS aired an American Experience episode about the tragedy entitled Triangle Fire which you can now view online. I saw it and it’s a solid overview, but a little short on details, especially about the aftermath. On March 21st, HBO will be airing its more in-depth documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire, with the DVD to follow shortly.

If you’re in New York City, there will be a commemoration of the centennial on March 25th at 11 a.m. at the site of the fire, one block east of Washington Square Park in New York City. The building was one of them newfangled “fireproof” structures so it survived the fire even though its contents sure didn’t. It was refurbished and purchased by philanthropist Frederick Brown who donated it to New York University in 1929. Now it’s the Brown Building of Science, and Chemistry and Biology classes are held in it. Two plaques commemorate the victims of the 1911 fire.

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