March 25 marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a workplace disaster that not only claimed the lives of 146 garment workers and elicited public backlash against negligent safety regulations, but also had a great impact on Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945. A new exhibit at Mount Holyoke College, Perkin’s alma mater, commemorates Perkins’ service and observes the tragic 1911 fire.
Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and, according to Prof. Daniel Czitrom, the event compelled her to “push through important labor law reforms, improve safety codes, and protect women workers” in the aftermath of the disaster. Perkins herself described the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as “a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”
In observance of the centennial anniversary of the fire, and in tribute to Perkins’ life of public service, the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections is presenting an exhibit titled “Frances Perkins’s Labor Legacy,” a chronological portrait of Perkins and her role in the labor movement, through March 31.
A 1902 graduate of Mount Holyoke, Perkins became the first female member of the New York State Industrial Commission. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed her as secretary of labor in 1933, she also became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet.
Among the rare documents, photographs and books featured in the exhibit are excerpts from an oral history with Perkins on her recollections of the fire. A copy of her 1934 book, People at Work, and a 1933 edition of Llamarada that was dedicated to Perkins also will be displayed, along with various photographs and articles about her. Among the photographs displayed include one of Perkins with President Roosevelt at the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act and one of her in conversation with President John F. Kennedy at an anniversary dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act.
To learn more about the exhibit, visit https://pub.mtholyoke.edu/journal/LITS/entry/frances_perkins_s_labor_legacy.