Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: 100 Years Later


Today marks the 100th anniversary of a terrible tragedy that you might never have heard about.

The date was Saturday March 25, 1911.  It was at the end of a long work day, and a long 50+hour work week for the mostly Jewish immigrants who were employed as garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist blouse factory in Greenwich Village in New York City.  The factory - it's important to note - sat on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a ten story building.

The building itself was state of the art: everything inside the building was fireproof: the interior and exterior walls, the floors, etc.  Take the time to read the New York Times original coverage of the event (including the incredible pictures) and you will see that the whole thing lasted only half an hour.

How did the fire start?  Some say that one of the workers was sneaking a cigarette, and that a match/ashes ignited the piles of clothing scraps that littered the floor of the factory.  Others speculate that sparks flew from one of the sewing machines.

Regardless: 146 garment workers lost their lives that day in the worst disaster in New York City - until September 11th.

The tragedy of it all is that the workers didn't have to die.  They enjoyed the luxury of working in a state of the art fireproof building!

Yet they died because the factory owners routinely locked down all the exits from the factory so as to prevent the workers from stealing clothing.  Thus the women (more than 120 of the 146 were women between the ages of 16 and 23) couldn't use the stairs or the non-functioning elevators.  And they couldn't rely on the fire department to save them either.  Because as it turns out: the fire department's ladders could only reach up to the 7th floor.

Thus, the victims had to choose between staying inside the factory to face certain death, or take the risk of jumping out of the windows.  The fire department was standing by with netting to catch jumpers.  But the netting tore, because so many were jumping at nearly the same time.

There is immense tragedy, of course, in the needless deaths of so many people.  It is made all the worse by the fact that the victims were almost entirely immigrant women: relatively uneducated, forced to take factory work in order to help support their families.

The incident has become a major turning point in American Jewish history: it highlights the plight of Eastern European immigrants who were coming to this country in droves at the turn of the century.  (Indeed, I am especially struck by the event because my great grandmothers could have easily been counted among the victims.)

Nonetheless, I think that it's important to point out that the Triangle fire was also a pivotal turning point in the history of New York City and our country.  The fire is directly responsible for spawning an extensive range of safer building codes and workplace safety standards - things that we mostly take for granted today, but which were life and death issues 100 years ago.

The web is full of rich resources for further exploration on this important historical event.  I want to encourage everyone to sample some of the following:
I know that, on the surface, it might seem that this fire doesn't have very much to do with our lives today.  All the more so if you didn't have relatives living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.

Keep in mind, though, that while the flames burned out long ago, the issues that they raised have not.  We live in a society whose values guarantee that workers have the right to organize, in order to protect themselves.  And that right is increasingly being questioned by some on the political right.

Perhaps, if the fire's anniversary touches you in no other way, then at least it will invite you to (re)consider your stance on the issue of workers' rights.  Perhaps you will be motivated to get more involved in this pressing political issue.  Find out everything you need to know about our Reform movement's position on the issue by clicking here.  Regardless of where you fall on this issue, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about it, and your reflections on the fire.  Please do click on the Comments button below to publicly post.

May the memories of all those who perished 100 years ago live on - to be for a blessing, and as a reminder to all of us: that there is always more work to be done to make our world a healthier and safer place.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. wow....who knew? Certainly not I! It is indeed amazing to see how that one incident has had lasting effects for generations to follow!

  2. Thank you, Rabbi, for an inciteful, important, article. I agree that it is especially important to remember this tragedy now, in light of what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, and across the country. (Sheryl Silverstein)