101 years on – The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

March 25, 1911, New York City –

There were many who saw it coming.  Dangerous workplace conditions were one of the many targets of the labor movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Abhorrent sweat-shop conditions had already led to countless accidents in New York and elsewhere.  This era had seen a massive influx of immigrants – Chicago had grown from a town of 5,000 to a metropolis of 2.2 million in only 70 years.  In 1907 alone, 1.7 million Europeans passed through New York’s port.  It was said that every few years New York added to itself a city the size of Dublin; and indeed, by the opening of the 20th century, there were more Irish in NY than in Dublin, and more Greeks than in Athens.

Most of the immigrants were essentially peasants in the old world, living the same pre-industrial life that their forebears had lived for generation after generation.  It could be said that in coming to America, many flew headlong from a medieval sort of lifestyle into the most modern place on earth.

In a scenario played out over and over again before and since, the disoriented masses, impoverished and desperate, became the expendable and exploitable machinery of the titans of capitalism.

However, workers very quickly found their voices, unionizing and demanding rights to elevate them over the status of workhorses.  They, of course, were fought tooth and nail the whole way by the system that profited from their oppression.

1912 Lawrence Textile Strike

In 1909, workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist (blouse) Factory on Washington Place in Greenwich Village walked out, inspiring the mass strike of garment workers known as the “Uprising of 20,000”.

Speaking at a rally at Cooper Union (in the same theater that sparked the success of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign), 24-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant Clara Lemlich announced:

“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

A year later, the “Great Revolt” witnessed a strike of 60,000.  The strikers and their organizers were predominantly Eastern-European Jewish or Italian – and female.

1910, New York

During both movements, the city responded with unlawful arrests and brutality tactics.  Lemlich herself had suffered broken ribs from a police attack.

In reactionary fear, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory locked its doors during working hours, to prevent walk-outs and to keep union agitators out.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

So it was on the afternoon of March 25, 1911.  By some accounts, it was an unseasonably warm Saturday.  As always, nearby Washington Square Park was full of people enjoying the day.  At 4:40 pm, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the factory.  The large amount of fabric present meant that the fire spread instantly, quickly engulfing the factory’s three floors.  Many loaded onto the only accessible fire escape, only to have it collapse beneath their feet.

In a scene horrifically repeated 90 years later in Lower Manhattan, trapped workers began to leap from the window, some of them aflame, some holding hands with each other – the majority of them teenage girls.

In all, 146 perished- many heaped in a bloody, charred pulp on the sidewalk.  Four bodies were not finally identified until 2011.

Almost immediately, crowds of horrified bystanders began to form:

“The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”

The owners were subsequently acquitted of manslaughter charges, though forced to pay compensation to the victims’ families.  Twistedly, the amount they paid out was significantly less than the money they made back from insurance.

Tragedy it surely was – but if there is one bright spot, it is that middle and upper class New Yorkers could no longer look the other way on the issue of worker’s rights.  The city was forced to take moral stock of its principles.  The resulting reforms produced rights that we still enjoy today.

The fire was New York’s deadliest workplace disaster until 2001.  The fact that it resulted in the deaths of women and girls with no other options in life gave it a special place in the city’s infamy.

May Day, 1913 - Union Square

Last year was the centennial – the names and ages of the victims were written in chalk on the sidewalk where many died, wreaths and anonymous flowers were laid along the building – many descendants were present, and there was a woman incanting a Yiddish prayer.

The drapes mark windows from which workers jumped.

At 4:40, the time at which the fire started and alarms rose up around the city, the crowd rang bells while staring up at the windows.

Ringing of bells – TSF fire centennial

The building was renovated, and today is an NYU chemistry building.  However, very faintly, one can still see burn marks.

Victims' names - Centennial


About ventilateblog

http://www.createdbymattlogan.com/ MUSIC Classically trained cellist. Attended Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University - degree in Music Composition, and three years of recording arts and audio electrical engineering. Multiple works for chamber groups and orchestra have been produced and performed. Singer-songwriter with rock and folk roots.. Electronica. Today, it's about mashing together all these things into improbable hybrids. Also, a longtime educator of music. PHOTOGRAPHY Unpredictable and in the moment is what I love. Streets, architecture, and people. Ruined places. History. Frozen moments. Great love for imagines wrought by beautiful mystery of film and vintage cheapy cameras. WRITING The vague, ephemeral. The historical - the ghosts behind the veil of time. Delving deeply into the intricacies of our physical and cultural world. Relaying memory and longing. And sometimes the absurd. Life runs deep. Life

Posted on March 25, 2012, in NYC past, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It’s sad it happened. I read about the fire last year, the photos are really tearjerkers.

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