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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’s 100th Anniversary Commemorated

146 women and children perish in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

Thistle Cottage Studio Blog


  March 25th, 2011,  marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic fire that “changed the world” in 1911.  Known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which, in an ironic and cruel twist of fate, took place at the Asch Building, in the Greenwich Village section of NYC.  One hundred and forty-six people, mostly women and children, perished as they tried to escape the flames that engulfed the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors, within twenty minutes. Events leading up to the fire included immigrant garment workers protesting and striking for better wages, fair and safer working conditions, and a shorter work day.  The workers were exploited in the most heartless way, often bringing home a much diminished paycheck, or none at all,  due to the penalties they were charged for breaking needles, talking, spending too much time in the restroom, tardiness, or bleeding on garments!!  A needle through the finger was no excuse to cry or stop working!! Many families went hungry on a regular basis for these injustices! Refusing to work on Sunday was not tolerated, as workers could be replaced readily, as people were desparate for jobs.  Even at only $8.00 per week, the owners had the upper hand, and thought nothing of treating their employees like cattle!   The shirtwaist, as it was called, was a ladies blouse, that was rapidly going out of style , and another thorn in the sides of the owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck.  They were loosing money at a steady pace, and the threat of unions coming in to challenge their authority and control, was the last thing they needed!  To further their stress, there were no less than 500 garment factories in Manhattan competing with them.  Their response to the striking workers was violent and swift.  Although the protests were peaceful assemblies, Blanck and Harris hired unsavory thugs to instigate trouble, resulting in the workers being beaten and hauled off to prison by the police, who it is believed, profited financially for taking sides.  Women and children as young as 14 years old were savagely beaten on the streets.  A 22 year old worker by the name of Clara Lemlik was a key organizer, and spoke at the Cooper Union gathering, as she urged all garment workers in NYC to go on a unified strike and work walk out.  She was beaten and left with six broken ribs.   Forty-eight hours later, seventy factories became union only shops, but the Triangle factory held out, and refused to succumb to the workers demands.
  As the fire raged, workers were trapped in locked workrooms on both floors. The fire began on a Saturday, at 5pm, just before quitting time. Blanck and Harris had agreed to keep only one entrance open, to combat shoplifting.  They conveniently escaped the blaze through the skylights on the 10th floor, where their offices were, then jumped across to the next building, and down the fire escape. A phone call from the 8th floor alerted them to the fire, yet, they did nothing to alert the lower floors, nor did they make any effort to unlock the doors.  By the time the fire department arrived in their horsedrawn pumpers, the upper floors were fully engulfed, and the ladders only reached up to the sixth floor!
  The workers, deparate to escape the flames, kicked out windows, and jumped , and some tried to slide down the elevator cables.  Twenty were killed in an effort to descend a rusted fire escape, which twisted and collapsed under their weight.  With so many workers jumping at once, the fireman could not safely catch them in their nets.    One on the scene reporter recalls, “I will never in my lifetime, be able to forget the sound of a human being hitting the pavement.”  Some workers were burned beyond recognition.  Seven were not identified.  
  Harris and Blanck were accused of manslaughter, tried, and acquitted for lack of proof that they knew the doors were locked from the outside.  They collected a hefty insurance check, and walked away scot free, into the infamous  ambiguity of history.
  As a result of the tragedy, thirty new child labor laws, workers rights, and safety regulations were passed into law and enforced across the country.  If this is any consolation, these workers did not die in vain.
   To commemorate the 100th anniversary of this horrific tragedy, Hope High School, in Providence, RI,  will host a memorial on March 25th, at 7pm.  The event is free and open to the public.  Refreshments will be served, as well as a scene sampling of the play, that is headed to the Fringe Festival, in Edinburgh, Scotland for two weeks in August, this year. Two full performances are scheduled for April 7th and 8th, at 7pm, in the same theater.  For ticket information, please call Hope High School’s main office.
   I, (Elsie Collins), would like to thank Ms. Christine Auxier, theater teacher/director at Hope High, for giving me this fabulous opportunity to design the costumes for this play, to the student/actors who helped sew many of them in my studio, and to my 10 year old student and personal costume shop assistant, Miss Erika Rooney for her devotion and hard work!!.  Our prayers go out to all of the victims.


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  1. User avater
    copperwoman | | #1

    Thank you for posting this. The efforts obvious in the designs and execution are wonderful and truly honor the memory of those who perished.

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