Federal Action Recommended To Control Flammable Clothes

Federal Action Recommended To Control Flammable Clothes

Epidemics of Fires Involving Long Nap Brush Rayon Sweaters Shows Need for Regulation


LONG before the fire service had heard of rayon or long nap brushed rayon, it was acutely conscious of the need of fireproofing or fire-retarding fabrics and other furnishings and decorations.

Each fire catastrophe in a place of public assembly renewed the outcry for fire safe materials. Thus, after the Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942, a five-year research project was inaugurated by Columbia University which it was hoped would eliminate a repetition of such disasters.

Going further back, the International Association of Fire Chiefs year after year urged flameproofing of draperies and decorations, as well as some construction materials. At the same time, manufacturers of such materials, and organizations such as the Underwriters Laboratories, National Bureau of Standards, and private research groups, concentrated on the problems of fire-safing the things we wear as well as home furnishings.

The introduction of flame-proofing methods and treatments and the introduction of fire-resistant materials such as fiber glass and similar products together with increased laws regulating flameproofing have materially reduced the fire hazards in furnishings and decorations so widely used in places of assembly and group living.

While this effort was bearing fruit, however, new hazards arose in other fields, principally that of wearing apparel. For the most part, these hazards resulted from the use to which many fabrics were put, including some material never intended for wearing apparel. This is typified by the case of the lady who purchased a few yards of a very attractive plastic finished fabric. Although it was intended for household use only, she decided to make an apron of it. While cooking a festive dinner for her family, the apron was ignited by contact with the hot stove. What should have been a joyous day became one of tragedy.

The introduction of new types of fabrics, and of materials of which fabrics are made, to meet growing competition, broadened the dangers presented by articles of wearing apparel which readily ignite and flash over wide areas instantaneously. Not only clothing, but articles of personal adornment, such as bracelets, brooches, necklaces, etc., worn as trimmings, often presented incendiary menaces of significant proportions. That the field extends ever further is attested by the case of the woman who suffered an amputation of her foot as a result of the speed and intensity with which the plasticized heel of the shoe she was wearing burned.

Back in 1940, a New York department store authority warned against the purchase of dangerously flammable fabrics such as later were used in cowboy suits and “torch” sweaters. He warned that brushed rayon was dangerously flammable. He described brushed rayon as a napped fabric, the fibres of which are teased (or combed) out of the yarn, giving it the appearance of wool. The mass of fine fibres, each surrounded by air, accelerates the burning, he explained, and added a warning note to the public to protect itself by “exerting care.” But textile engineers and others saw no grave cause for alarm, claiming the textile industry is sufficiently aware of its problem, and “the manufacturers will police themselves and will not turn out fabrics dangerous to the consuming public.” In this connection the then secretary of the National Federation of Textiles, Inc., said brushed rayon had been on the market for the past 15 or 20 years and reputable manufacturers . . . “do use a fire resistant process.” She blamed the month-old “flash fire” sweater scare on the practice of fly-by-night manufacturers and street peddler-salesmen and urged federal legislation affecting fabrics for wearing apparel.

Not long after the predictions by the department store authority, children’s cowboy suits bearing the name of a popular western moving picture actor began to flame up, killing and injuring children in all parts of the country. There arose a public demand for laws to prevent the use of the flammable fabric. The cowboy whose name was used on some of the garments was sued for heavy damages. Merchants likewise were sued, while textile and clothing makers sought to prove by laboratory and other tests that their products were “fire safe.”

In New York City the editor of Fire Engineering and staff members participated in tests to determine the hazardous nature of fabrics, notably brushed rayon, and to develop effective instruments for testing fabric flammability. In Washington that same year (1945) the then president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Chief Samuel Pope of Boston and other chiefs attended demonstrations of the flammability of children’s cowboy suits in the office of Representative J. Leroy Johnson of California. As a result of these and other demonstrations, and the public outcry, Representative Johnson proposed a law to prohibit the sale of highly flammable cloth in interstate commerce, claiming it should cut deaths from such burns from 10 to 20 per cent. The then chief of the Bureau of Standards, Washington, concurred in this and gave the House Interstate Commerce Committee a demonstration to show the speed in which various cloth materials would burn.

Representative Johnson’s bill would have outlawed cloth that burns at the rate of 10 inches in any given direction in 10 seconds. The tests resulted in a cotton muslin burn of 10 inches in 68 seconds; a lightweight rayon burned 10 inches in 16.5 seconds and a fleecy section from a child’s cowboy suit burned 10 inches in 3.2 seconds.

Flammability of sweater checked at Greenwich, Conn. Photo taken 18 seconds after sweater was ignited. Left to right are Deputy Fire Marshal Henry P. Crawford holding stop watch and Chief Stuart M. Potter.The combustible quality of the fireball sweater is dramatically illustrated in the above photos. The harmless appearing coat sweaters held by Lieutenant William Bentley (left) and Fire Chief Theodore E. Lockwood, of the Stratford, Conn., Fire Department, become suspended torches within two seconds after the cigarette lighter flame is applied to the bottom hem. Holding the flaming sweater is Fireman Charles Carten in back of Fire Chief Lockwood.

Photo Courtesy Tom Magner

Other committees, and other organizations including the National Retail Dry Goods Assn, pressed for national and state legislation to prevent further broad use of these fast-burning fabrics.

After months of flareup of arguments for and against legislation, during which time no appreciable action was taken, another flurry of accidents, many in the neighborhood of the nation’s capital (six children died in Baltimore during 1946), resulted in further efforts at legislative regulation. Senator Capeheart and Representatives Johnson and Canfield all offered bills in 1947 as did the N.R.D.G. (under the name Arnold bill).

Out of the confusion it is reported only one state bill of note was adopted. This was in California, which had been one of the worst sufferers from flammable cowboy suits.

After 1947 the crusade, like so many others, was displaced by other news headlines. Nevertheless, some textile and garment manufacturers were merely biding their time. In late 1951 and January, 1952, it was apparent that it did not matter that reputable textile makers and retail merchants were refusing to deal in flammable fabrics, there were others who saw easy profits on the old Roman basis of Caveat Emptor—let the buyer beware.

During Christmas week, 1951, the “explosive sweaters,” as the garments were called, made the headlines, burning a number of people, some seriously. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut people rushed to turn over to fire and police departments garments made of brushed rayon. The National Board of Fire Underwriters issued a warning against such products. On the West Coast, fire prevention bureau officials said at least eight persons had been burned by sweaters that burst into flames. Five peddlers were arrested in January and tried under the California law, but this apparently did not prevent the sales of the deadly garments.

A flammable sweater alarm went out to 13 states in January for men who were believed to be distributors of the sweaters, which reports claimed had burned at least 20 persons throughout the country. Sweaters turned up, following this, in Kansas City, Mo., New Orleans, La., Albany, N. Y., Fall River, Mass, and Greenwich, Conn.

Meanwhile, in New York Chief Fire Marshal Martin Scott, who was deluged with samples and complaints, was able to run down some of the manufacturers of the sweaters. One admitted making them at the rate of 250 per week for the past year after entering the business with borrowed capital of $800. When he learned from one of six peddlers to whom he sold that the sweaters were dangerous, he said he would quit. Fire Marshal Scott and New Pork’s Fire Commissioner Jacob Grumet made more tests, and went after the mills also. They found in one factory 15 bolts of brushed rayon totaling 1,000 yards, and about 500 sweaters. On the wholesale level it was disclosed the firm had been selling peddlers sweaters from $2 to $2.50, and had no idea what the peddlers charged. Primarily made in all colors for men in sizes 40 and 42, the sweaters are convertible and may be worn by women, it was disclosed. Marshal Scott said undoubtedly there were thousands of the sweaters around the city, and they could be identified by their fleecy appearance, light weight and crunchy feeling.

Later in January, New York papers reported flammable, brushed rayon was being used for “best selling” baby-doll blankets, rugs, pants, jackets, and even hats and other garments. In Baltimore, firemen tested one of the “best selling” blankets and it went up in flames in 105 seconds.

In Columbus, Ohio, seven alleged “explosive” sweaters were turned over to the police on a single Sunday. In Cleveland, Ohio, police traced the sale of the dangerous wearables to curbside hucksters who bought their wares from the B. & A. Trading Co. on the city’s southeast side. In Milwaukee the “torch” rayon alarm spread; in Cambridge, Mass., baby-doll blankets that turned to ashes in seconds also were found. In Duluth, fire fighters got reports of at least six so-called “torch sweaters.” Reports trickled in also of the products being found in Canadian cities.

Investigations established the fact that Providence, R. I., manufacturers were reported to have admitted they formerly fireproofed the cloth used in these produts with chemicals but later discontinued the process because it dulled and stiffened the material.

In New York State a bill to make manufacture or sale of dangerously flammable clothing a misdemeanor was introduced by Assemblyman Angelo Graci, following the outgrowth of the “torch” sweater disclosures. At present other states contemplate similar measures. Meanwhile the American Assn, of Textile Chemists and Colorists and other textile and dry goods groups have renewed their tests and prepared arguments for or against remedial legislation.

In January, Federal Trade investigators were sent to New York and six other cities to seek evidence that may lead to federal charges against manufacturers of the flammable garments. It was found that some of the garments were misrepresented as wool, which is reported punishable by a year in prison or $5000 fine. The National Bureau of Standards came to the fore with the warning that dry cleaning would not make the so-called “flash” sweaters safe. The Bureau demonstrated, as before, on Capitol Hill following an appeal by Senator Theodore Green of Rhode Island for immediate Senate action.

The New York State Association of Fire Chiefs in convention January 16, directed its legislative committee to frame a bill to secure state legislation banning the “explosive” sweaters.

In Detroit, police learned that a “numbers racketeer” is a director in a concern that made flammable sweaters. The firm, the Devonshire Sports Mfg. Co. of that city was ordered suspended by a fire department order.

On Jan. 23rd, the Federal Trade Commission took action against Fisher & DeRitis, Philadelphia, manufacturers of a line of sweaters under the name of Town & Country, charging misrepresentation. The day before, Fire Chief Fred Carter of St. Johnsville, N. Y., reported a new hazard in “torch” clothing, women’s hats. He said a test on a hat turned in by a teen-ager proved that it was made of flammable rayon material identical with several “torch” sweaters recently collected.

In Charlotte, N. C., Fire Chief Donald S. Charles secured the cooperation of local press and other interests to see there will not be any considerable purchasing of these flammable goods in his city. He disclosed that a member of the Wilkinson Boulevard Volunteer Fire Department spent nine months in Memorial Hospital, Charlotte, and suffered permanent disability as a result of burns received from a sweater that ignited when he tossed coals into a heater.

The climax of this report comes from Claude A. Conlin, Jr., Captain, Photography and Publicity, Department of Fire, Los Angeles, Calif, under date of Jan. 15. This details the experience of the department of that city in coping with the problem. Captain Conlin quotes several case histories, and the value of the cooperation of local press, radio and TV stations in meeting the challenge. Fast action by the Fire Prevention Bureau resulted in the arrest of one wholesaler and more than a dozen salesmen. The captain lists the manufacturers traced, and found to be located outside the legal jurisdiction of the state, as follows: Bradford Sportswear Co., 1100 Westminister St., Providence, R. I.; Dean Merchandising Co., 75 Eagle St., Providence, R. I.; Century Knitting Mills, 1610 St. Marks Ave., Brooklyn, N. Y.; Fisher & DeRitis, Philadelphia, Pa. and Stratford Sweater Co., 227 Boston Ave., North Arlington, N. J. These firms use many different brand names, it is said.

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What Can Be Done About It?

Until adequate federal and state legislation is in effect to prevent the manufacture and sales of such flammable apparel and related products, it is evident there will always be gyp concerns and selfish people who will take advantage of any lack of law.

The best defense against this situation is publicity. An informed public, cooperating with alert fire and police departments, will ultimately either bring to book the offenders or will make the marketing of such unsafe products so unprofitable that they will cease operations.

In addition to cautioning the public against the dangers of such wares, the National Board advises passing on these suggestions:

If you have such a sweater, and it catches fire—

  1. Don’t run. That fans the flames.
  2. Tear off the sweater. If the fire’s too strong, smother the flames with a woolen blanket, coat or rug.
  3. Pull the blanket, coat or rug tightly around the neck to prevent the gases from getting to your face.

Finally, this is a continuing subject which should have the attention of all fire service organizations and associations, all of which should join in demanding prompt and adequate regulatory measures in their area.

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