Last week I paid a visit to the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Hundreds of people gathered to commemorate the anniversary of this tragedy in which 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who toiled in sweatshop conditions, lost their lives.
Along with the relatives of those who had died in the fire, the event brought together union workers representing many different sectors. I saw firemen, retail workers, electric workers, restaurant workers, construction workers, and laundry workers.
A dozen or so people in the crowd carried long cardboard poles on top of which fluttered shirtwaist-style blouses. A sash was slung over each blouse and pinned into position. On the front of each sash was written the name of someone who perished in the fire that day and on the back was listed the victim’s age. Most of the ages I saw listed were in the range of 17 to 22 years old, but some were as young as 14.
The event itself was very moving considering there were hundreds of people “staging an event” on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street during a day that was both a little too brisk and a little too windy. Most of the people in attendance seemed to be participants rather than observers. And yet, listening to the speakers and watching the events unfold, I couldn’t help but think about the tragedy of 146 people dying in a factory fire, many of them with no means of escape but windows 8, 9 & 10 stories high — beyond the reach of the fire company’s ladders — leaping to their deaths, landing at the sidewalk below, one after the other, stunning the onlookers and the country. I was struck at the injustice of how those women died, how they made pittances, and toiled in terrible conditions, so that two men could maximize their profits.
Speakers, who appeared to either be relatives of someone who died in the factory fire that day or children from a local school, lined up one-by-one, spoke a victim’s name and age into a microphone, and bent down to place a white carnation on the sidewalk where so many leapt to their deaths. Just after each name was spoken into the microphone, a fireman solemnly tolled a silver bell in remembrance.
It took a long time to go through 146 names. Some of the young women were newly-engaged. Others had husbands and children. I was surprised by the diversity of ethnic surnames. These young women were Jewish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Spanish-speaking immigrants, Chinese immigrants, and from elsewhere, I’m sure. It was a melting pot of immigrants sharing the same experience: exploitation and premature death.
On several occasions, during the event, one or more people spoke of modern-day sweatshop conditions. We were reminded of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh where a building containing several textile factories collapsed in 2013 killing over 1,100 people. The retailer, Children’s Place, was denounced for having been a major customer of one of the factories located in this building.
After the Triangle commemorative event was over, approximately 20 of us walked over to the nearest Children’s Place store, marched and chanted in front of their doors, and demanded better pay and working conditions for those who make the clothes sold in their stores.
- The New York Times has a section devoted to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
- So does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- and the United States Department of Labor
- Cornell University has a lot of fascinating materials.
- Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition
This video provides an overview of the tragedy:
This video features a survivor from the fire telling her story: