Are We Doomed to Repeat the Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy?
This post is written by Eva Brune.
“In the panic of the fire, I recall that three girls wrapped themselves in the American flag and jumped out the window together… Among the dead, were a mother and two young sons who all worked at the Triangle Company. They suffocated from smoke while taking cover in a small room in the shop. Several of us survivors later went to their house, a small room somewhere in the (Lower) East Side. A poor room it was, virtually base, with a violin hanging on the wall. We imagined we heard plaintive, sorrowful airs coming from the violin…we left quietly, leaving, the violin hanging…”
Mary Domsky-Abrams, Blouse Operator, Survivor
Interviewed by Leon Stein for his book “The Triangle Fire” published in 1961
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory, located at 23-29 Washington Place at the corner of Greene Street in Manhattan, burned. One hundred forty-five young immigrants, mostly Eastern European Jewish and Italian workers, were killed in less than 20 minutes. The youngest was 15 and the oldest was 38. All but a handful of the victims were young women in their early 20s.
Like in most factories at the turn of the 20th century, the young immigrants employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory worked in grueling conditions – long hours, limited air, low pay, and a hazardous environment. The Triangle Factory’s owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – were notorious for their lack of concern of their workers. The same factory experienced a fire in 1902, and the owners’ other factory – the Diamond Waist Company – burned in 1907 and 1910.
In addition to the physically dangerous environment, workers dealt with degrading policies. Employees were paid a pittance for twelve hour work days. In 1909, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union staged a strike to demand higher pay and better working conditions. Blanck and Harris were one of the few factory owners who ignored the demands; in fact, they hired police to imprison their striking employees.
The Triangle Factory Fire is one of the most infamous incidents in American industrial history. Most of the victims died because of locked doors, inoperable windows, inadequate escape ladders, lack of water sprinkler systems, and other situations that could have easily been prevented. Even the fire brigade that came to the factory’s aid had faulty nets (three girls jumped from a high window at once, ripping the net immediately) and hoses that sprayed just a couple stories high. Blanck and Harris were brought to trial on manslaughter but, perhaps incredibly, were acquitted.
Passers-by and reporters told stories of the incredible horrors they saw – women jumping from windows to their death, screaming, panic. At the morgue, relatives could not identify their children, wives or sisters because their bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets in protest, demanding action to safeguard workers from such tragedy again. There was a wellspring of new memberships in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Jewish organizations, including the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee. They raised funds for the survivors and grieving families advocated for change.
Throughout New York, and eventually nationwide, people took action, bringing greater strength to the labor movement and immigrant rights groups. For their efforts, new safety laws were enacted in the State of New York. Soon, similar laws spread across the country. Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, observed the tragedy firsthand from the street below. When she was appointed Secretary of Labor 22 years later, Secretary Perkins put in place some of the most far-reaching labor laws in the country. She helped create unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and secured the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain. The U.S. Department of Labor enacted Occupational Safety and Health reforms, and OSHA still exists today to enforce regulations that keep employees safe and healthy on the job.
Culturally, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is still remembered today. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was founded in 2008 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the fire. Every year the coalition partners with dozens of organizations to provide educational programs, activist events, and arts programming for all ages. At the Museum at Eldridge Street, we also offer periodic Triangle Fire programs. In 2014, the Museum hosted the Lisa Gutkin Band, who dedicated their concert to the garment workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In 2015, Debbie Wells spoke in our historic sanctuary about her ancestor, Annie Nicholas, who died in the fire.
And yet, sweatshops still exist today. New immigrants are often in desperate need of employment and forced to take work in places with sub-par standards. They have little recourse to improve conditions. Today’s newspapers tell the stories of laborers who face many of the same hardships of the early 20th century – unsafe working conditions, confiscation of their passports, denial of pay. In 2011, then-Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis wrote in the Washington Post about how and why the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is still relevant today. She reports that in 2010, 4,340 laborers were killed on the job. More than 3.3 million were seriously injured. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor report that 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Much progress was made after the factory fire, but it is clear that advocacy and change is still critically important. Just as in the 19th century, the onus is on the citizens – on us – to demand change. The events of history often seem so distant and irrelevant to our current lives. But this is just one of many instances showing us how wrong that supposition can be.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building still stands and houses offices for New York University. As Solis noted in her article, “History is an extraordinary thing. You can choose to learn from it, or you can choose to repeat it.” One way we’re learning from it at Eldridge Street is through a new opera, Morning Star, taking place in our historic sanctuary later this month. The moving show chronicles the lives of an immigrant family on the Lower East Side. Real-life turning points, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, influence their lives as they attempt to build happy and successful lives in their new country. As the spiritual home to many such people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we are proud to bring these stories to life through this opera. Some tickets are still available – find out more on the website and get the few remaining tickets to this moving experience.
Eva Brune is the Museum’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement.