At the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, New York was viewed as a port city busier than any other in the world. Using short films between thirty seconds and two minutes long, the tremendous scope of the city was demonstrated to potential immigrants, causing an influx of interested parties. There were skyscrapers of previously unseen height located on Manhattan due to the hard granite bedrock. The streets were packed with immigrants selling wares from the sidewalk and on pushcarts. New York was also home to the most extensive subway system in the world, a title it held until after World War II. New York, as the entryway to America, represented possibility, and attracted innumerable people to take their place in New York’s expanding job market. As New York’s job openings mostly related to taking in new immigrants, the promise of jobs was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When they first entered New York, immigrants were screened hastily. People were turned away for a short list of reasons, including heart disease and mental illness. Unlucky people had a letter written on their clothes in chalk in order to be examined for the associated problem, with a little less than one in fifty people being turned away and sent back onto the ship. For many people, the screening process took a matter of seconds, and for everyone, the result was irreversible.
Before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it was common for poor, unmarried immigrant women and children to work in unregulated factories. There was no government standard of working hours or safety precautions, worker pay was docked for talking, and workers could be fired for being sick. Though there had been a massive strike led by teenage immigrant women, heads did not turn until after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 employees died trapped on the eighth floor of a burning building. The overcrowded factory floor had all of its doors locked from the outside, and the fire escape was in disrepair. Even with the fire department on the ground beneath the fire, nothing could be done to save the factory workers, who began to jump to their deaths. Afterwards, a body of concerned citizens ensured that government regulation stepped in to prevent a repeat tragedy.
- New York: A Documentary Episode 4: The Power and the People. Dir. Ric Burns. PBS, 1999. YouTube. 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 June 2014