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

US Investors Eye IPO for China's Alibaba

E-commerce giant handled 80 percent of China's online business last year, logging more Internet transactions than US-based Amazon.com and eBay combined More

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

As cease-fire begins, Palestinians celebrate in streets; Israelis remain wary More

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

In treatment of a 12-year-old boy Chinese doctors used a 3-D printer and special software to create an exact replica of vertebra 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.
Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implanti
X
August 27, 2014 4:53 PM
A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. VOA News reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Northern California Quake: No Way to Know When Next One Will Hit

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake rocked northern California’s Napa Valley on Sunday. Roads twisted and water mains burst. It was the wine country’s most severe quake in 15 years, and while hospitals treated many people, no one was killed. Arash Arabasadi has more from Washington on what the future may hold for those residents living on a fault line.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.

AppleAndroid