“Rose Mehl – 15 years old.” The words jump out from the flip side of a business card on which they are imprinted. Rose was a Jewish girl who lived on East 7th Street in New York, and she had a job as a factory worker. Her name and age are printed on the back of a card of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.
On March 25, 1911, Rose Mehl went to work at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Manhattan. She never went home that day. Near closing time on that Saturday, a fire broke out, spread rapidly, and ravaged the factory in a very short time.
The blaze killed 146 people, mostly young girls and women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families. (Of 146 victims, 129 were women and girls.) They had worked long days of as many as 14 hours for just a couple or few dollars. Rose Mehl was one of those who died. What was she thinking toward the end of that workday? Were her thoughts happy ones? Did she look forward to going home? These are my thoughts as I see her name on a card commemorating the fire 100 years later.
To read the victims’ names and ages and to see where they lived and where they had come from is to enter a different world, at least a world that contrasts with what is prevalent today in the neighborhood situated around where the factory was. They were factory employees toiling in dangerous, often-brutal conditions for low wages. They were mostly in their teens to early 20s. They perished in New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11. Today, if one stands outside the building where the fire occurred (now New York University’s Brown Building), you can hear the laughter and chatter of young girls and women who are now university students, passing by, often tapping their smartphones. For the most part, they live in a different world now.
During March – on the occasion of the 100th anniversary – and in the next several months, the city, NYU, and community groups plan to remember and honor the victims and survivors, and to focus on the Triangle fire in a variety of artistic, civic, and educational events. A key remembrance and examination, on view until early July, is an illuminating, unforgettable exhibit at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, entitled “Art | Memory | Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” The exhibit, which is co-curated by NYU professors Marci Reaven and Lucy Oakley in collaboration with graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History, is located in the gallery’s lower (basement) level. It’s quite moving to take in the exhibit and then walk around the block, so close by, to view the floors that housed the factory.
The Triangle shirtwaist factory was located in the top three floors of this structure, then known as the Asch Building (now New York University’s Brown Building), in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The Grey Gallery exhibit is a well-researched, evocative telling of the fire’s history and its continuing impact, from the days prior, to the day of the fire and the immediate aftermath, and finally through what has occurred in the decades since then. It chronicles the event through photographs that show the factory’s gutted interior, family members identifying the dead, and funeral processions; newspaper articles and political cartoons; artwork; artifacts such as shirtwaists; and other objects.
It powerfully connects the thread of the past with today, especially in labor history. The exhibit provides the context of how garment workers, in the months prior to the fire, had been waging campaigns – including a citywide strike in 1909 – for higher pay and safer, better working conditions. They sought recognition for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The Triangle’s owners had held out against the workers’ demands for better fire safety. The exhibit then documents the ways that the tragedy was a turning point, albeit a tragic one, prompting many labor and political advancements. It also details how various people and groups have memorialized the Triangle fire in the century since 1911, in everything from children’s books and posters to a sidewalk art campaign. Lest we think that this is something only in our past, the exhibit poignantly urges vigilance and activism about sweatshops that continue to exist today.
Quick and Terrible
As I read the introductory overview in the gallery, these words struck me the most: “perished in a tragic and avoidable fire” – especially the word “avoidable.” Everything flows from those words in vividly capturing the event and its impact. On that day in March, the bell had rung for closing time, at 4:40 p.m. (a shorter workday on Saturday). Workers were heading toward their normal exit, to Greene Street. Suddenly, a fire broke out on the 8th floor, likely from a cigarette or match tossed into a bin of fabric scraps. It moved rapidly, helped by an airshaft funneling smoke and fire, to the 9th and 10th floors. The blaze quickly spread over workers’ wooden tables and swaths of materials.
The immensity of the loss of life that occurred in a very short time is breathtaking. Firefighters brought the fire under control by 5 p.m., meaning that it burned out of control for less than a half-hour. The death toll was enormous.
Several factors worsened the toll. As the fire was spreading, someone sent word about the blaze to the 10th floor, but the 9th floor workers never received any message. The firefighters’ ladder reached only to the 6th floor. A lack of exits contributed greatly to the toll, too. On a daily basis, the owners had locked the door to Washington Place because they were concerned about theft and insisted on all employees leaving through one exit where the management could inspect bags. So the Washington Place door was locked as the fire consumed the factory. Some employees were able to escape. Many employees, however, were trapped inside, and they burned to death, were pushed or fell into an elevator shaft, or leapt to their deaths on the sidewalk below.
The exhibit’s photos and newspaper pages depict the horror and magnitude of the tragedy. One picture shows the crowds around the Asch Building watching the fire. In another, relatives and friends identify the bodies of their loved ones, after some 130 bodies were taken to the 26th Street Pier on the East River (which became known as Misery Lane). A headline on a New York Evening Journal story reads, “Woman Tells Of Fight For Life at Blocked Doors!”
The city was in shock. In the aftermath, the families and city residents mourned and poured out their grief, remorse, and, at times, rage at the factory owners. Citizens created spontaneous memorials around New York, and many organized a massive relief effort for the families, according to the Fall 2010 issue of the NYU Alumni Magazine. In an incredible outpouring, some 400,000 people turned out at a funeral procession for the seven unidentified victims.
Artists created some of the most stirring images. Painter John Sloan, who had gone to the fire scene, created an illustration, reproduced in The Call, a Socialist newspaper, depicting the body of a fallen worker inside a triangle with the words “Rent,” “Profit,” and “Interest” on each side, with a skeleton and a fat cat flanking it. As the exhibit notes, the responses were both no means unanimous – some in the upper classes sought to control the response because they feared unrest.
Owners Let Off
Meanwhile, officials and newspapers sought to determine exactly what had happened and who was responsible. The New York Times, in an article three days after the blaze that is contained in the exhibit, reported in detail how agency officials were pointing fingers at each other, declaring in its headline, “Blame Shifted On All Sides For Fire Horror.” Unions urged investigations and stronger fire safety measures.
Many hoped that the factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, would be punished for the horrendous loss of life. However, on Dec. 27, 1911, just over nine months after the fire, a jury acquitted the owners of manslaughter, a case that hinged on finding not only that the Washington Place door on the 9th floor was locked, and locked with the owners’ knowledge, but that the shuttered door caused the death of Margaret Schwartz, an employee named in the case, as a Times article explains.
Yet a government that had not done nearly enough to protect the workers before the fire produced sweeping action after the tragedy. Pushed by the public’s demands, the New York State legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission, as the exhibit noted. This panel of government officials, organized labor, and social reformers looked at not only the Triangle situation but at many other manufacturing plants. Ultimately, it pushed through more than 30 bills pertaining to workplace issues, including improved fire safety, factory ventilation, sanitation, and inspection procedures. Out of this horrible event came awareness and action in New York City and State that influenced what came later in the New Deal.
We can see such an impact from the fire on an individual life, too – one that helped change a nation, as chronicled in the exhibit’s text and photos. Frances Perkins, then age 31, was having tea at the home of a well-to-do friend on Washington Square North on March 25, 1911 when she heard the fire bell clang. Like others, she ran to the fire scene and witnessed the destruction, seeing with her own eyes as girls leaped to their deaths from the upper floors. The sight remained “seared” on her mind and was pivotal, as Perkins later said. It made her determined to do more to alleviate the terrible conditions workers endured. As a player with the FIC, she helped push through its measures in New York State. Later, as Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, Perkins was instrumental in the establishment of many worker protections and improvements, such as child labor laws, the minimum wage, overtime mandates, and unemployment benefits.
Still With Us
The decades since have witnessed a wide variation in the way that people have chosen to deal with and remember the Triangle fire. Some sought to tamp down any public memorializing of the tragedy. Others, however, were determined to never forget it and to create memorials of various kinds and to document the survivors’ recollections. Still others were inspired by it to seek better working conditions and to join the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The exhibit traces the many ways that the “fire’s memory has been claimed, contested, or re-invigorated.” (In Part 2 of the Triangle Fire stories, Mindfulwalker.com looks at various commemorations and artworks, leading up to and including today.)
After viewing the exhibit, I walked around the corner to look up again at the building where the fire had taken place. Standing there took me back to that day and the horror and shock those workers must have experienced and felt – both those who died and those who survived. It’s a solemn admonition of exactly what is at stake when we either confront or ignore the terrible conditions that many workers deal with in creating what we use and wear every day.
A visit to this exhibit or a reading of the recollections online, like those in a project of Cornell University’s ILR School, renders each of the Triangle fire victims and survivors more real. Mary Domsky-Abrams, a blouse operator on the 9th floor who escaped, recalled in an interview later that on the morning of the fire “a cheerful feeling prevailed all over the floor.” Perhaps, she said, it was because one of the factory workers had come in gleefully showing off a diamond ring that her fiancée had given to her the night before. Then in an instant and a fire that tore through the factory in less than 30 minutes, her life, like so many others, changed forever.
Events and Resources: Triangle Factory Fire
Grey Art Gallery Exhibit
The exhibit is on view at the Grey Art Gallery until March 26, and then will return from April 12-July 9, 2011.
Events and Resources: Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has an extensive listing of events for the 100th anniversary of the fire. It also offers information, many resources, and ways to get involved.
Web Exhibit: Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire
This online exhibit of original documents and other resources offers an in-depth and moving way to explore the fire and its aftermath. It lists the names and ages of the victims, contains survivors’ interviews, and has photos and illustrations. The project presents original documents and secondary sources on the Triangle Fire, held by the Cornell University Library. They are housed in the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University’s ILR School.