Saturday, February 26, 2011

100 Years Later: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911

The map (partial view) indicates the names and ages of all the known Triangle Fire victims.  It was created for the project CHALK, based on the list provided by David von Drehle in "Triangle: The Fire that Changed America," and updated based on the original research of Michael Hirsch and comments by family members. The fire symbol represents the location of the fire in the Asch Building. On the CHALK project website, the map is clickable on each person symbol for name, age, and address.  Many of the victims were teenagers.   

Plan of the 9th floor - The floor plan of the Asch Building’s 9th floor, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Greenwich Village, NYC, shows the layout of eight, long tables in relation to the cloak room, windows, fire escape, elevators, and stairs.  High ceilings included in the space-per-person calculations, allowed owners to employ 240 people in a relatively-small area resulting in the rapid transmission of illness among workers and leaving little space for moving safely through the room.

Model of the 9th Floor, showing fire hazards,

1.) Locked door to the stair well.

Fire fighters arrived at the Asch Building soon after the alarm was sounded but ladders only reached the sixth floor and the high pressure pumps of the day could not raise the water pressure needed to extinguish the flames on the highest floors of the ten-story building. In this fireproof factory, 146 young men, women, and children lost their lives, and many others were seriously injured.  Fire escapes on the building were inadequate and flimsy, and collapsed under the weight of so many people trying to escape.  In any event, the fire escapes were not built to reach the ground, but stopped about 30 feet short of the street. 

In an editorial cartoon, a man wearing clothing made of money leans against the factory door which is locked with a dollar sign key, while women die in smoke and flames on the other side of the door.  

Hand sewing was done by men and women facing a narrow bench, while men operated sewing machines at a long row of paired work stations. [The men standing around in the back watching the workers and doing nothing are supervisors.]  Some unethical subcontractors took advantage of newly-arrived immigrants forcing them to work long hours for the right to keep their job.  A standard 56-hour week might stretch to 70 hours without overtime pay.  Workers were often forced to supply their own needles and thread, and had to pay for the electricity used to run the sewing machines, and rent the chairs they sat in to work from the factory owners, (or have these charges deducted from their pay) thus assuring the owners of even more profits.  Pressing the clothes, usually by men, was done with irons powered by a tangle of gas lines, and since smoking was prevalent amongst the pressers, danger from fire was rampant. Both men and women workers suffered from working conditions, with eyestrain and backaches heading the list, as well as respiratory problems from breathing in fine textile fibers in unventilated spaces. 

Map of Asch Building location, from: Leon Stein's "The Triangle Fire" (Cornell Univ. Press, 1962)

Ruth Sergel, an East Village artist, organized volunteers, including descendants of the victims, to spread out across the city to inscribe the names of the dead outside their former homes.
"As a New Yorker you grow up with this story," she said, "but to see it this way, connected to space, it's a hidden geography of the city."

 Photos from the Chalk Project from previous years.  Photos by Anthony Giacchino, one of the Chalk Project participants, who chalked the names of the victims from East Harlem. Flyers are also posted on the buildings that are "chalked" to notify current occupants what it is all about.  Giacchino has started a new Triangle Fire-related project called "Dead Letters," which involves mailing letters to each of the victims at the last known address to see what 146 returned letters looks like.

For the upcoming events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire, and NYU exhibit about the fire (the Triangle building site is now owned by NYU):

Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

NYU Grey Art Gallery Exhibition Jan 11-Mar 26, Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Short documentary about the Fire, with survivor recollections. 

PBS film about the Triangle Fire:

Interactive map of the Triangle Fire and important associated locations:

Murder and Nothing Else but Murder,” account published in The New York Call, (a Socialist newspaper) March 27, 1911
East Harlem Preservation – interesting accounts of some of the records on the girls from East Harlem.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” David von Drehle, 2004, Grove Press.

I dedicate this posting to all the needlewomen, past and present, and especially to Maggie Barnacle, 1872-1973, my great-grandmother, who, as a child, sewed buttonholes on trousers in the sweatshops of New York City’s Lower East Side, and well into her 90’s could still sing old songs from the 1890’s like nobody’s business! (including remembering all the lyrics from all the many stanzas of “The Sidewalks of New York” and “The Bowery,” etc.).  East side, west side, all around the town…….

See follow-up post Remember the Triangle! at