Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Century after the Fire

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column each week in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

In 1911 over one-thousand workers were killed in work-related accidents every week in the United States. Divided by the days of the week that number becomes over 140 people per day. As we know this was before the advent of strict child-labor laws and many of those workers were children.

March 25, 1911 was a single day in history when 146 workers died just on the Lower East Side of New York City. 146 workers in one building on one corner of Green and Washington Streets immediately lost their lives. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York State for ninety years until September 11, 2001.

The Triangle Waist Factory employed over 500 women and men on the top three floors of a 10-story building near Washington Square in Manhattan. These were mostly immigrants between the ages of 14 and 25 who worked in what we would today call a sweatshop.

There were 240 sewing machines on each of the 8th and 9th floors of this garment factory. The machines were closely packed side by side and the workers’ elbows nearly touched as they worked. Most of them worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week for paltry wages. It was a greedy time and well-to-do men (immigrants themselves) were interested in the bottom line – profits.

The then-modern building was meant to survive a fire and it did. 146 workers didn’t.

Lit possibly by a cigarette, the fire exploded as it consumed small pieces of thread, fabric and tissue paper patterns that had been discarded on the floors and swept under tables. Large lengths of fabrics and huge spools of thread sat on every worker’s table. Hundreds of ‘Gibson Girl’ shirtwaists in fluttery fabrics were piled high in varying stages of assembly. The flames roared as they were fed by these dry goods. The inferno quickly engulfed the entire 8th floor.

Nearby fire engines raced to the scene and firefighters held high their hoses as they poured water on the building. Exit doors for escape were locked, presumably to keep the workers from taking breaks before closing time or to deter them from stealing fabric from the factory. There were no sprinklers in the building although they had been invented and were available. Building codes simply didn’t require them. Antiquated fire company ladders reached only to the sixth floor. As the fire traveled throughout the 8th floor 80 of the young girls and boys, women and men escaped the flames and jumped to their deaths. Helpless onlookers looked on in horror. Another 66 more victims were burned as they were either unable or unwilling to jump.

The company’s owners, one of them being visited by his own young daughters, escaped to the roof along with all of the clerical staff. The tenth floor housed the factory’s offices and there were no locked doors on that floor.

The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was last week on March 25. HBO produced a powerful short documentary that premiered on March 21, 2011. The Department of Labor launched a website ( devoted to the fire complete with archival photographs and audio narration. Articles focusing on the Triangle Fire have been highlighted in nearly every major news website and newspaper this month.

History classes in elementary and junior high schools have examined the fire in studies of labor and social injustice. Many of the books written about the fire are written for elementary and junior high audiences. “Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy” (2011) by Albert Martin is one such book written for young adults. I’ve written about my respect for non-fiction children’s books with their wonderful graphics that easily illustrate and text that is readable and interesting. Martin’s book is just that. After introducing the topic in the first chapter he continues with concise descriptions of the United States and New York just after the turn of the century. We begin to understand immigration and neighborhoods and struggle. We marvel at the resilience of the poor and we shake our heads at the greed of the rich. This book can be read in one or two sittings.

Many other authors have written about that famous fire. “Fragments from the Fire: Poems” written by Chris Llewellyn was awarded the Walt Whitman Award for 1986. “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America” by David Von Drehle was written for adults in 2004 and is available in large print format and unabridged audio book format. Historical fiction for both adults and children using the fire as a backdrop of the story includes Katherine Weber’s “Triangle” (2007). Fiction for young adults 12 and up includes “Uprising” by Margaret Peterson Haddix and “Threads and Flames” by Esther Freisner (2010).

There are many non-fiction children’s books including Katie Marsico’s “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Its Legacy of Labor Rights” (2010), Donna Getzinger’s “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” (2009). A dozen more were published in the last decade alone.

Sometimes horrible events can be a catalyst to powerful change. The Triangle Fire was one such tragedy. One of the witnesses of the fire that day was Frances Perkins, a social worker and graduate of Mount Holyoke College. Ms. Perkins went on to become FDR’s secretary of labor and the first female member of a president’s cabinet. She was influential all of her life in helping the working poor. In Kirstin Downey’s biography of Frances Perkins, “The Woman behind the New Deal”, one chapter is devoted to the impact that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire had on Ms. Perkins. It was that turning point in her career that inspired her to help transform the course of history after she had been so moved by heartbreak and social injustice.

For help searching in the Minuteman catalog for these titles or for placing requests for all library materials please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website,