Visualizing What Happened Then (and is Still Happening Now): The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Social Responsibility

Translating and editing texts related to the social sciences is interesting and rewarding work. I admire how experts in all fields of the social sciences fuse historical references, statistics, human psychology, law, medicine, and other disciplines to forge new insights into the human experience, tracing who we have been and indicating how we might evolve in the future, individually as human beings and collectively as citizens of a global village. Artists also work with social issues, drawing from some of the same sources as social scientists. This week in New York the centennial of an event that marked a “before and after” in both the city’s collective memory and the history of organized labor has been the occasion of scholarly reflection and artistic expression.

Shirtwaist: a woman’s tailored garment (as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts.              Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Exactly one hundred years ago today, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building, a ten-story mixed-use structure situated on Greene Street a little east of Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The Asch Building reflected a high standard of fireproof construction for the early twentieth century. The fire, which spread rapidly and charred the interior of the top three floors in less than thirty minutes, did no structural harm. It was later refurbished and sold to a  businessman who ceded it to New York University in 1929. In contrary to the great care taken in constructing the fire resistant shell of the building, practically no effort had been made to provide or maintain fire safety systems or escape routes for the human beings who worked within its walls. The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory were a cramped, poorly ventilated warren of cutting, sewing, and pressing machines, overhead racks of finished shirtwaists, and numerous bales of cotton cloth where hundreds of workers―the majority of them immigrant girls below the age of twenty-three―worked a nine-hour shift Monday through Friday and seven additional hours on Saturday.

Around 4:40 on Saturday, March 25, 1911, the Triangle Factory workers were wrapping up their shift. As they waited for the signal to punch the clock, someone shouted “Fire!” Half an hour later, Greene Street was strewn with the bodies of dozens of desperate workers who had flung themselves from the factory windows. The charred remains of more victims were discovered inside: many huddled against a door that had been locked to prevent the workers from stealing factory goods and others near the shaft of an elevator that was out of service the day the fire broke out. Survivors and onlookers later told tales of factory fire hoses that had not functioned and shoddy and inadequate iron fire escapes which had collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers.  The fire gutted the three floors of the factory before the firemen could arrive. In any case, their ladders only reached the sixth floor of the building. At 5:15 the fire was completely extinguished. Shortly after 11:00 p.m. the last body was carried off to the morgue. One hundred-sixteen women and thirty men had perished in the fire.

The event laid bare the darker side of early twentieth century industrialization and marked a turning point in the struggle for American safety and labor legislation. The ILGWU Local 25 had called a strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909 to protest unbearable working conditions, twelve hour shifts broken only by a half-hour lunch period, dangerous machinery, poor ventilation, and a lack of overtime compensation, a protest that later spread to factories throughout the city. The settlement reached in February 1910 included a small raise in pay and  a shorter workday, but factory owners made no concessions concerning working conditions and safety. In the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster, owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted on six counts of manslaughter for the deaths of two of the 146 workers who perished in the fire, but later acquitted. Ironically, in August, 1913, they were fined $25 for locking the fire exit doors in their new factory.    The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire became a rallying cry for unions and labor reformers intent on establishing safe working conditions throughout the textile industry. David Von Drehle titled his book on the event Triangle the Fire That Changed America. Stronger labor regulations were passed throughout the United States and Europe in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire; but while legislation and workers’ rights improved in some places, in general, the public’s addiction to affordable fashion and the industry’s policy of cutting costs to feed that demand remained the same. A century after “the fire that changed America”, the majority of the factories that produce what we wear are located in places where governments turn a blind eye to the plight to textile workers who toil long hours in appalling conditions. The many commemorations planned for the centennial of the New York tragedy should serve as a reminder that although the battle for decent wages and working conditions in the textile sector isn’t being fought before our eyes, it is still being waged in other places around the world. Guaranteed safety in the workplace and an end to child labor are unmet social development goals that will require a radical change of mentality, starting with the consumer.

Apart from scholarly books, a number of artists have been inspired to create works that memorialize the Triangle Shirtwaist workers and raise the issue of workers’ rights. I have always been fascinated by the way writers, playwrights, and artists draw upon historical archive material to create works that address social issues. A fine example is Chris Llewellyn’s Fragments from the Fire, a book of poems based on historical documents of the period. Llewellyn’s free verse incorporates quotes from newspaper reports, eye witnesses, and court documents. She imagines what a young immigrant garment worker named Marie wrote to her uncle in Europe: “They say with everyone coming here, Europe will soon be empty. Next payday I am sending money. Give some to Auntie but save the large part for yourself” and the reaction of Yale, the fire captain’s horse:

My name is Yale. At first:

Hail of cinders.

Glass. Fire bells.

Falling bales and

Timbers. Blood-smell…

Today the NYC Fire Department will park one of its fire engines in front of the Asch Building and raise its ladder to the sixth floor―two or three floors short of the window sills where terrified factory girls cried out for rescue. “It’s a heartbreaker,” says Ruth Sergel, coordinator of the group Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition. “It makes you visualize what happened.”

To mark the centennial of the fire and bring attention to the many examples of unsafe working conditions that still exist all over the world, New York composer Elizabeth Swados has created “From the Fire,” a musical work that will be presented in the Judson Memorial Church in New York City several times this week. In an interview with Joy Resmovits for The Daily Forward she stated, “Moments like these merit reflection. . . especially in light of the recurrence of similar tragedies such as last December’s factory fire in Bangladesh, which killed at least 29 garment workers.”

The organizations SweatFree Communities and the International Labor Rights Forum are also hoping to use the commemoration as an opportunity to raise consciousness concerning the rampant use of child labor and the dangerous working conditions that exist today in sweatshops around the world. They have invited Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter, former garment workers who have served jail time in Bangladesh for trying to raise labor and safety standards there, to speak at various events scheduled throughout the city. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, the garment manufacturing sector is responsible for eighty percent of the GDP of Bangladesh. Workers earn $43 a month―about half of what they need to maintain their families. “They survive,” Trina Tocco, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum has observed, “by making cheap clothing for us. We shifted where products are made, but not how they are produced.”

While art and theater can raise the public’s consciousness of the human rights violations that lurk behind the glamour of fashion trends, good investigative reporting also can bring us closer to understanding our implication in a cycle of production that must be reformed if we are to make worldwide progress in the critical areas of human rights, health, education, and sustainable development. British Channel 4 recently produced a series of investigative reports under the title “Fashion’s Dirty Secret” which exposes inhuman labor conditions suffered by employees working for overseas subcontractors to some of Britain’s top fashion labels.

The Independent also ran an interesting article lately about how the overwhelming success of Sienna Miller’s “boho chic” look led overextended Indian suppliers to relax their oversight of subcontractors. The newspaper reported that “Children who had been sold into bonded labour — virtual slavery — by their families in other parts of India were sent to work in Delhi to meet a surge in demand for traditional Indian zari embroidery and beading for the boho chic look.” Reporters from the Independent tracked down some of these children working in the Delhi sweatshops. The youngsters told them that they worked from 9am to 9pm, with an hour off for lunch six days a week. A little boy who didn’t even know his own age told the reporters how much he missed his village. I miss my friends,” he said. “I went to school and I miss it.” Kailash Sathyarthi of the Global March Against Child Labour stresses that these children are the real “fashion victims” of today’s style-obsessed society.

Whenever I walk down Manhattan’s Greene Street, I stop to look up at the top floors of New York University’s Brown Building of Science, once known as the Asch Building. Where a century ago young immigrant girls hunched over sewing machines six days a week, scholars now study evolutionary biology. Many of the young Triangle Shirtwaist garment workers were the prime breadwinners of their families. Statistics show the same phenomenon occurs in India today; the ILO estimates that in some cases the pitiful wages of children working in Indian sweatshops represent as much as 37% of their families’ total income.  India is not the only country were these abuses are taking place.

Can anything be done to break this cycle? Yes, it can. Perhaps the best way to commemorate the tragedies of the past is to start  building a brighter future. If you want to know what is being done to raise the bar on children’s rights around the world, have a look at The Child Labor Public Education Project website which states:

Increasing children’s access to public education is a fundamental strategy for ending child labor.

If subjects like that could hit the top ten trend list on Twitter, and people gave some thought as to how it might be accomplished, we could make some real  progress toward human and social development and give fashion a brand new look.