Remembering the Women of the Triangle Fire – Q&A with Debbie Wells

On Wednesday, March 16, the Museum at Eldridge Street will host Remembering the Women of the Triangle Fire, a talk with Debbie Wells. Wells, a Co-Founder and Partner of Artful Circle, has a personal connection to the tragedy. Here she shares her thoughts on the history of the Triangle Fire, its continuing resonance, and the significance of having the talk in the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Interview by Rose Cronin-Jackman

How would you summarize the content of your upcoming talk on the Triangle Fire at the Museum at Eldridge Street and your personal connection to the topic?

My lecture is two-fold: Beginning with a basic history lesson, I share general information about the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through photographs, quotes and other materials. I talk about the lives of immigrant workers in New York City, sweatshop conditions, the Triangle Factory owners and employees and more. I also relay events leading up to the actual day of the fire and the aftermath. I discuss the response of the public to the issues that the workforce faced at that time and how it affected America today.

Annie Nicholas

Annie Nicholas was an 18-year-old button maker who perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The other part of my talk is much more personal. In a story filled with twists and turns, I explain why I got interested in this topic. Several years ago, my son, who was in elementary school at the time, was doing his homework on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy while my husband’s grandparents were visiting from Florida. My husband’s  grandmother, Anne Lerman, mentioned in passing that her aunt was one of the victims of the fire. She even showed us a photo of a beautiful young woman wearing a feathery hat. That lady was Annie Nicholas. Seeing that photo sparked a series of events that make for a movie. I don’t want to ruin the story by telling you now – come to the lecture! – but it is inspiring, exciting, sad and thrilling – involving people from Cornell University, The New York Times, HBO, and political icons. I am sure that after hearing this tale, others will be inspired to delve into their own family backgrounds to possibly uncover their own fascinating stories. Anne Lerman died this year at age 101 and we all miss this special lady. She was actually named after her aunt, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of naming a baby after a deceased relative. Anne knows the family research I have done and I am proud to continue the story in her honor.

What is the significance of having this event at the Eldridge Street Synagogue?

The Eldridge Street Synagogue is in the center of the Jewish Lower East Side experience. The site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is nearby in what is now the NYU campus. The actual building is across from the Washington Arch and now called the Asch Building. There are plaques describing the history of the building on the outside wall. Knowing that many of the people working there walked to work from the area of the synagogue makes it feel more real. You can just imagine their experience. Some of the buildings look the same and if you replace the pavements with cobblestone and cars with buggies, you can really feel their presence. (Annie Nicholas was one of the few people that did not live in the immediate area of the Triangle Shirtwiast Factory. She “commuted” to work from East Harlem.)

How did the fire change life for the immigrants, especially young women, living on the Lower East Side?

The entire immigrant community was devastated by this event as was the rest of the country. Even though labor problems had been brewing, it took this tragedy to open the eyes of the public and the government. This tragedy led to the rise of labor unions, and many laws were created for better working conditions, including fire safety. The life of a sweatshop worker in the United States was changed forever. Workers are now protected in ways that they could have only dreamed of at the time.

One of the things that struck me on a personal level was the quality of life (and death) for Annie Nicholas and her niece Anne Lerman. When comparing their lives, Annie died as a beautiful young woman at age 18 in a horrible situation. She worked hard full-time to help her family. Anne, also beautiful her entire life, had it much easier one generation later. She married a wonderful man, was a full-time homemaker, traveled and enjoyed her family, including many great-children. Anne died at the age of 101 surrounded by her husband of 78 years and other loved ones. Do you think Annie would be pleased to see how life for her descendants was better? Isn’t that what most of us want for future generations?

In my lecture, I also tell “The Story of the Scissors” which explains how parents rationalized that their daughters did not die in vain. These immigrant families had trouble coping with the tragedy and how family lore interpreted the story a hundred years later is fascinating. Again, come to my lecture to hear the complete story!

Though the disaster occurred over 100 years ago, are there lessons we can learn from what happened?

We honor the victims by remembering our lessons learned. Changes in the law and the power of labor unions are a significant part of American society today. When I researched online, I discovered the Kneel Center at Cornell University. Their Labor Relations program is one of the finest in the world. Their digital archives clearly explain why the Triangle Fire was pivotal in making changes to protect the American worker. When I donated Annie Nicholas’ photograph and background information to them, I feel good about contributing to this worthy resource.

How can we honor the memory of those who died in the fire?

Giving this lecture and sharing the story with others is my personal way of honoring those who perished. I have presented this talk to Hadassah, various assisted-living facilities, temples and at educational programs – all very well-received. Along the way, I have met other relatives of victims and there is an instant bond. I even met an artist, Jennifer Merz, who made the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory story into an illustrated storybook. I have a print of the cover of the book that she autographed hanging in my den. It is a beautiful reminder of Annie Nicholas and the other ladies who died in the Fire.

The fact that the Eldridge Street Synagogue hosted a Triangle Shirtwaist Fire event every year is very special and I am proud to have been invited to be a part of it.

Debbie Well’s talk “Remembering the Women of the Triangle Fire” is on Wednesday March 16th at 7 pm at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. This is a pay what you wish event.

Categories: History, Lower East Side

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