OWNING HAZARD: an experimental play about law

On Friday, October 8, the Institute for Legal Studies of the University of Wisconsin Law School presents "Owning Hazard in the Modern American Workplace", an experimental play by Barbara Young Welke, Professor of History and Law at the University of Minnesota. The play will be at the Chazen Museum Auditorium, L140, from 3:30-4:45 p.m. located at 800 University Avenue in Madison.

About the play:
Although it was common enough prior to the 1940s to read in the newspaper about someone – most often a child or a woman – who was seriously injured or burned to death when their clothing caught fire, “flammable fabrics” first became a public issue in the United States with the cowboy suit tragedy in the 1940s and early 1950s.  Between 1942 and 1953, an untold number of children across the United States were severely burned when the Gene Autry cowboy suits they were wearing caught fire turning them into “human torches.”  A number of children died, others were left with grotesque scars and crippled for life.  Between 1945 and 1953, at least one hundred families brought lawsuits against those involved in the manufacture and sale of the cowboy suits and their component parts.  Only one of these cases -- McCormack v. M. A. Henry Co., Inc. -- brought in state court in New York, was tried.  When the court reached a verdict against the defendants, they scrambled to settle other cases as quietly as possible and worked to limit publicity relating to the accidents and settlements.  In 1953, in large measure because of the cowboy suit tragedy, Congress passed the Flammable Fabrics Act, followed in 1967 by a substantial broadening of the act and in 1972, by a second set of amendments applying specifically to children’s sleepwear.   The combination of private lawsuits and legislation reshaped significant segments of the clothing industry; it did not though bring an end to the production and sale of flammable fabrics.

About the author:
Barbara Young Welke is Professor of History and Law at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge University Press 2001) which was awarded the AHA’s Littleton-Griswold Prize, and Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century United States, the inaugural book in the New Histories of American Law series edited by Michael Grossberg and Christopher Tomlins (Cambridge University Press 2010). She is currently working on a play and two book projects related to the history of product liability in the United States. In 2007 and 2009, she chaired the Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She will be chairing the Hurst Summer Institute for a final time in June 2011.

Author's comments:

"My goal is to deliberately disrupt narrative, to provoke questions not simply about “what happened?” but about the larger questions that the example here of flammable fabrics raises about owning hazard. I am a historian, not a playwright, so this venture is decidedly experimental. The format is intended to take apart evidence that in the scholarly endeavor becomes reduced to a seamless narrative or marshaled in support of a particular argument, to restore to the reader/viewer a role in the interpretive process, to entertain divergent readings.  Finally, I wanted to consider how one might combine the visual and performative in legal history."


Submitted by Ruth Robarts, Assistant Dean for Student & Academic Affairs on October 5, 2010

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