Remembering the Triangle Fire, 100 Years Later
By JOSEPH BERGER
The New York Times
In the arts and academia, on television and on a Greenwich Village street, the 146 victims of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire will be remembered over the next few weeks in an outpouring of events marking the centennial of the workplace tragedy.
The events, which started last month — roughly 100 in New York City and another 100 elsewhere in the nation — seem on a scale unmatched in New York since the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 or the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday party in 1986. And those were celebrations. This commemoration will have a more mournful, reflective tone.
“It’s amazing, the passion that has come out for this,” said Sherry Kane, a spokesman for Workers United, the union that today represents garment workers. “I think it speaks to people because it’s about immigrant issues, women’s issues, workers’ issues, so it’s all these communities and it feels very important to them.”
The lineup of events planned around the anniversary on March 25 include documentary films, art exhibits, plays, dance recitals, a requiem, a soliloquy, a slide show, an oratorio and lectures and panel discussions.
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Art * Memory * Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
http://www.nyu.edu/greyart/">Grey Art Gallery (New York University)
One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, perished in a tragic and avoidable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building (now NYU’s Brown Building), on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. The fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. With many of the stairways blocked, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor. Although it was extinguished in less than half an hour, the Triangle Fire was New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11.
The exhibition results from an innovative collaboration between the Grey Art Gallery and graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History. Divided into four sections, it begins with the ladies’ garment workers’ strike of 1909, then chronicles the fire itself, the display of bodies at the morgue, press coverage, and funeral processions and other memorials, including legislative action. Section two records the fire’s legacy during the New Deal era, noting the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and examining its representations in journalism and mural painting. The third section explores activities surrounding the fire’s fiftieth anniversary in 1961, including commemorative ceremonies, scholarly publications, interviews with survivors, and landmarking.Demonstrating renewed interest in the fire’s legacy today, the final section investigates contemporary memorial activities, both on site and in the form of visual representations in community projects and performance art—along with works of scholarship, film, music, and literature, including children’s books.
Art ● Memory ● Place concludes with a call for continuing vigilance and political action to protect the rights of garment workers, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The exhibition is dedicated to the fire’s victims and survivors, and their descendants. Documenting a century of commemorations, it traces the many social and political advances inspired by the tragedy, and the myriad ways in which its memory has been claimed, contested and re-invigorated.
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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911)
The New York Times
It was Saturday, March 25, 1911. The work week was ending at the Triangle Waist Company factory in Lower Manhattan, and the men and women who operated the sewing machines and cut the cloth were pushing away from their tables, with some anticipating a night on the town and all looking toward their one day of rest.
On the 8th floor, flames suddenly leaped from a wastebasket under a table in the cutters’ area.
While workers frantically struggled with pails of water to douse it, the fire hopscotched to other waste bins and snared the paper patterns hanging from strings overhead.
The fire spread quickly — so quickly that in a half hour it was over, having consumed all it could in the large, airy lofts on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building, a half block east of Washington Square Park.
In its wake, the smoldering floors and wet streets were strewn with 146 bodies, all but 23 of them young women.
The Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, as it is commonly recorded in history books, was one of the nation’s landmark disasters, a tragedy that enveloped the city in grief and remorse but eventually inspired important shifts in the nation’s laws, particularly those protecting the rights of workers and the safety of buildings.
The tragedy galvanized Americans, who were shaken by the stories of Jewish and Italian strivers who had been toiling long hours inside an overcrowded factory only to find themselves trapped in a firestorm inside a building’s top floors where exit doors may have been locked. At least 50 workers concluded that the better option was simply to jump.
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