Friday, March 25, 2011

STORIES OF THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE


Today is the centennial of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. The factory employed hundreds of garment workers, mostly Jewish and Italian young women who'd recently immigrated to the country, and who now found themselves toiling for 6 or 7 days a week to make shirtwaists (like blouses), for an income of just dollars a week. The workday was ending that Saturday, March 25, 1911, when a fire started on the 8th floor of the building, and spread quickly to the 9th and 10th floors. The factory was crowded, and there were few escape routes -- some were blocked by the voracious flames, another was locked, and the fire escape bucked and fell under the weight of many women trying to escape. While some workers were able to escape through open routes, 146 others died by fire or by falling or jumping from the building. The fire became a potent symbol of the need for better workplace safety conditions, and spurred a great deal of union organizing, resulting in a wave of regulations on workplace safety. Starting on the 50th anniversary (when Eleanor Roosevelt and others spoke at the location of the fire, and at Brooklyn's Evergreens Cemetery, where some of the victims are buried), the fire has been commemorated every year. 

The last survivor of the fire died years ago, and yet the story of the catastrophe still resonates today. I say "story" rather than "stories" advisedly, because there is the iconic story of the fire -- the poor working conditions, the oppressive bosses, the immigrant women jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames that would have otherwise consumed them. The story has attained a mythic status -- not in the sense of its being untrue, but rather in the sense of how it embodies cultural ideals of immigration, labor, the importance of unions. Maybe enormous events like this inevitably take on the qualities of myth or legend, whether because the details get lost in the passage of time, or because so few of us are likely to take the time to learn more than the broad strokes of the narrative. It may also be because the story is only useful as a cultural touchstone if it is mythologized. For every historical event or figure like this, there is a public or collective memory that has to be so capacious as to allow a broad array of private memories. But sometimes, when people's private memories assign such radically different meanings to an event -- 9/11 is an obvious example -- the public memory is fought over.  I don't see the same kind of contest over the meaning of the Triangle fire, but maybe that's because I'm in New York City, and not in Wisconsin or Ohio where union battles are being fought so publicly right now. If anything, perhaps anti-union forces today would say not that the Triangle fire has some totally alternate meaning -- for example, that it indicates the need for less safety -- but rather that it is irrelevant. In other words, the fight, if there is one, may not be over what meaning the fire (and the story of the fire) has today, but whether it has meaning. The many memorials and online exhibits about the fire implicitly argue for the relevance of the event today, and explore the fire more in detail -- making of it not just one story, but many. 

A few online resources. The Asch building is today the Brown Building at New York University, which has an exhibit about the fire, with an online component here.  The New York Times has a fantastic array of stories, including one about an amateur genealogist who uncovered the names of the previously anonymous victims of the fire, another about Jewish victims of the fire, and so on. And then the Triangle Fire Open Archive invites anyone to contribute items of relevance to commemorate the fire; the archive has reached 100 items, and includes artworks, poems, stories, a Senate declaration on the fire's centennial, the recreation of a union rally, and more.

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