Next Friday, March 25th, is the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  The deadly fire prompted the creation of new fire safety and building codes and galvanized the labor movement.

For a full list of events around the city and the nation related to the memory of the fire and the women who perished go to rememberthetrianglefire.org.

Firemen battling the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 1911.  (Frederick Hugh Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is just one of many conflagrations captured by Frederick H.Smyth, who made a hobby of taking and collecting photographs of New York City fires.

In addition to documenting other notable fires — such as the 1912 Equitable Building Fire, and the ruins of the 1911 fire at the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island — the Frederick Hugh Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs provides an invaluable record of the transition from horse-drawn to motorized fire equipment.


An early motorized fire engine.  (Frederick Hugh Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs)

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire occurred at a critical juncture in this transition.  Just nine days before the fire broke out, on March 16, 1911, the New York Fire Department tested the first gasoline-propelled automobile fire engine in the country.   So successful was the test that the New York Times pronounced it to be “the death knell of the horse in the fire department” — a prediction that came true in December of 1922, when New York City retired its last horse-drawn fire engine.

Of course, no one foresaw that a week later the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist fire would be the death knell of 146 garment workers — much less that people would still be commemorating the fire and its repercussions 100 years later.

As we watch events unfolding in Libya, and still hear regular news of Somali piracy, it seems like a good opportunity to have a look back at America’s historic relationship with North Africa.

From the earliest days of the United States, the Barbary States represented a thorn in the sides of American government and commerce.  As a fledgling democracy without an established navy, American ships and their crews were vulnerable to capture by pirates from Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, who would in turn demand obscene ransoms.  The United States was thus forced into the only viable option of paying extortionate tributes to ensure the safe passage of its ships.  These sums consumed a sizable portion of the cash-strapped American budget; under a 1795 treaty with Algiers, the US would pay $1 million, one sixth of the entire budget.

“A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as condition of the peace with the United States,” [1800].  Rufus King Papers (MS 1660)

The document shown above, entitled “A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as condition of the peace with the United States” is a fascinating piece of this transaction.  It records the absurdly lavish presents to be given to the bey and his family members, including “1 pair pistols mounted with gold set with diamonds” and similarly decadent watches, rings, chains and fabrics. (For a transcription, see below)

Appeasing the competing whims of the three Barbary rulers became increasingly costly and the United States ended its cooperative approach soon after the arrival of Thomas Jefferson to office.  This change in policy further soured relations, paving the way for the first of the two Barbary Wars beginning in 1801.

“The attack made on Tripoli on the 3d August 1804, by the American Squadron under Commodore Edward Preble.”  Irving S. Olds Collection of Naval Prints  (PR 047)

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A.          A note of presents demanded by the Bey of Tunis as a condition of the peace with the United States ―

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For the Bey.

1 fusee 6 feet long mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - – mounted with gold – - – - – - – - – - -

1 pair pistols mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - -  mounted with gold set with diamonds

4 do – - – - – - – - -  mounted with gold ―

1 poiniard [sic] enameled set with diamonds ―

1 diamond ring ―

1 gold watch set with diamonds chain the same

1 gold do set with diamonds chain the same ―

1 gold snuffbox set with diamonds ―

6 pieces brocade ―

6 do sattin [sic] ―

30 pieces cloth of different colors ―

For the Bey’s son

1 gold mounted fusee ―

1 do ———- pair pistols ―

1 gold watch set with diamonds ―

For the brothers and the cousins of the Bey ―

4 repeating watches and chains of gold ―

For the Bey’s wife

1 diamond watch

1 —- “ ——- ring ―

For his two sisters ―

1 diamond watch each ―

In honor of Women’s History month, we want to highlight materials that focus on  women in New York City history.  The Alexander Papers at the New-York Historical Society contain the records of the mercantile business of Mary Alexander and provide a glimpse into the life of a colonial NYC businesswoman.

Fabric samples sent by Mary Alexander, 1726. (Alexander Papers, MS 8 )

Mary Alexander’s mercantile business specialized in “haberdashery,” or what today is called notions.  Records from this firm include samples of fabrics that Mary Alexander had requested or purchased.  According to the records, Mary ordered expensive silks and worsteds as well as plain, utilitarian materials. The sample above is from the 1730’s and includes swatches of silver lace and crepe. The fabric samples are still vibrantly colored and are beautiful to examine.

Mary Alexander was born in New York City in 1693.  In 1711, she married Samuel Prevoost, an importer.  The couple had three children and together ran their mercantile business.  Mary contributed much of her inheritance to the business and generally acted as a business partner with her husband.  After Prevoost’s death around 1720, Mary married James Alexander, a notable attorney and politician. She had seven more children in her second marriage (only five lived to adulthood) and continued to run the Prevoost mercantile business. She sold goods in her store in front of their mansion on Broad Street and soon became one of the leading merchants in New York City.  With her social connections and her successful business, Mary was a prominent member of colonial society and is reputed to have served as an informal advisor to many New York politicians.  Mary Alexander died in 1760 and was buried with her husband at Trinity Church.

Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander, 1693-1760. (Portrait File, PR 052)
Creative: Tronvig Group