News / USA

100th Anniversary Recalls Horror of New York Triangle Fire

Art, poetry, film and performance commemorate tragedy and inspire activism

Mural by Ernest Fiene depicts the Triangle fire, in which 146 people, mostly  women and teenage girls, were killed.
Mural by Ernest Fiene depicts the Triangle fire, in which 146 people, mostly women and teenage girls, were killed.

Multimedia

Audio

March 25 is the 100th anniversary of New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which left nearly 150 garment workers dead. Most of them were Jewish and Italian immigrant women and teenage girls who died from burns or jumped from windows to escape the blaze on the upper floors of the 10-story factory building.  

The disaster led to workplace safety laws and the growth of powerful labor unions, such the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The incident continues to inspire art, poetry, music and drama.

Today, three small plaques outside a building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village are the only visible reminders of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The building now contains New York University classrooms and a library.

However, next door at the Grey Art Gallery, a multimedia exhibit called "Art/Memory/Place" makes the fire and the outrage that followed far more tangible.  For example, a political cartoon published two days after the event shows a triangle with a charred female corpse in one corner, a death figure in another, and a greedy, uncaring factory boss in a third.

One girl who escaped the Triangle fire but lost two sisters. (1911)
One girl who escaped the Triangle fire but lost two sisters. (1911)

A photo of an epic 1930s mural (above) shows a column of poor immigrants, a dead worker and other sorrowful images beneath a black plume of smoke from the Triangle fire, while another panel depicts a worker’s paradise of clean factories, robust health and leisure - all thanks to organized labor.

For Lucy Oakley, programs director at the gallery, commemorating the Triangle fire has been a personal odyssey as well as a professional challenge. She remembers being deeply moved at the recent premiere of a documentary on the fire where she watched college students in period costume read the names of the young women and girls who died.

"Seeing them, you realized how incredibly young and in the flower of their lives those young workers were and how unbelievably tragic it was for their families and their whole communities to lose them at that age," says Oakley, adding that the fire also devastated communities throughout New York City. “As was demonstrated when 400,000 people came out for the funeral procession for the victims.”

Bodies of the victims of the Triangle fire are lined up for identification at a New York morgue.
Bodies of the victims of the Triangle fire are lined up for identification at a New York morgue.

Contemporary art in many media, including painting, music, and street theater also recalls the tragedy. Actress Lulo Lolo created a one-act play in which she re-imagines the words of reporter William Gunn Shepherd, who witnessed the blaze.

"The top three floors are ablaze. Those poor factory girls, they are hanging out the windows, they are hanging by their fingertips. They’re screaming. It’s a red furnace up there. They’re going to jump. We’re trying to get them to stop…"

Artist-activist Ruth Sergel founded the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, an umbrella group of nearly 250 organizations. She also created The Chalk Project, where volunteers go to the buildings where victims of the fire once lived and write a memorial to them in chalk on the sidewalk.

"I think once you’ve chalked somebody, you feel a certain sense of personal responsibility for them. You can never pass that building again without remembering that that’s where that particular individual lived," says Chalk. "You start to create and understand this whole other world that used to exist, which was cut off. These people were cut off at an extremely young age."

The Chalk Project volunteers go to buildings where Triangle fire victims once lived, memorializing to them on the sidewalks.
The Chalk Project volunteers go to buildings where Triangle fire victims once lived, memorializing to them on the sidewalks.

One teenage girl on school field trip to site of the Triangle fire with her classmates saw a chalk triangle for a 14-year-old victim who once lived across the street from her.

"And it really touched me because of the fact that a girl close to my age died," she says. "I can still feel her pain because she lost her whole life."

The Internet plays a key role in the commemorations. Perhaps the most ambitious online project has been Remember the Triangle Fire’s Open Archive.  

Sergel says it welcomes posts in four areas: people, politics and activism, cultural response, and memorial.

“Hundred and Fifty Perish in Factory Fire; Women and Girls, Trapped in Ten Story Building, Lost in Flames or Hurl Themselves to Death,” New York Herald, March 26, 1911
“Hundred and Fifty Perish in Factory Fire; Women and Girls, Trapped in Ten Story Building, Lost in Flames or Hurl Themselves to Death,” New York Herald, March 26, 1911


"We have family members of both victims and survivors of the fire who are submitting photographs, memories of their family members.  We also have a phenomenal treasure trove from Our Lady of Pompeii [church]; they lost 18 Italian-American victims in the fire. People are also contributing what they’ve written about the fire, paintings, children’s drawings. Every day it’s growing ."

The open archive also features poetry, including "Shirt," written and read by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky:

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes-

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers-

Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning..."


Some artists believe that art and activism belong in separate spheres, but Sergel, an advocate for workers rights, believes art is a critical part of activism.

"It's the artists that make it possible for us to imagine a different world and not to be so pushed down so far that we can’t even think that it could be different. But the reality is it can be different."

Watch Peter Fedynsky Video story on the Triangle Fire:

You May Like

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid