On September 3, 1991, a fire erupted at the Imperial Foods factory in the small town of Hamlet, North Carolina. Twenty-five people died behind the factory's locked doors that morning. Most of the victims were women, and about half of them were black. In The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives
(The New Press
, 2017), Temple University history professor Bryant Simon
lays out the structural failures in the American and global economic systems which killed those workers. As economic growth slowed and inflation rose in the 1970s, many Americans grew disillusioned with the New Deal era promise of high wages and a robust regulatory state. Instead, Simon argues, Americans began to embrace a culture of cheap, ready-made, products and government policies which benefitted business owners, rather than employees. Food sat high atop the list of cheap items Americans craved, particularly chicken which, just before the Hamlet fire, surpassed beef as the meat most commonly consumed by American diners. It was no coincidence that the Imperial plant in Hamlet processed chicken strips and tenders for sale at national chain grocery stores. Nor was it a coincidence that Imperial relocated to North Carolina in the 1980s, as the state defunded regulatory systems and opened its doors to businesses looking for any edge in a hyper competitive market. The Hamlet Fire
is a remarkable and ultimately sad story about the hidden costs of American consumption and global systems of production at the end of the twentieth century.
Stephen Hausmann is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and Visiting Instructor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of race and the environment in the Black Hills and surrounding northern plains region of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.