Triangle Shirtwaist fire: Why it inspires plays and poetry readings 100 years later

A defining moment of labor history, the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York remains a powerful touchstone even after 100 years.

Bebeto Matthews / AP
Susanjoy Checksfield (c.), a founding member of the Triangle Fire Coalition, joins marchers at a rally to remember the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, during its 100th anniversary commemoration on March 25 in New York.

One hundred years ago today, at 4:45 p.m., a fire ignited in a scrap basket inside New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Within 28 minutes, the factory burned down and 146 workers died, mostly young immigrant women or children. Some fell to their deaths leaping from windows, others perished falling down empty elevator shafts. The majority were trapped inside the main work floor because the exit doors were locked by management – supposedly to prevent theft.

This tragedy gave human face to a vigorous labor movement, and nearly a dozen workplace-safety laws were passed in the immediate wake of the disaster. It was the worst workplace disaster in the nation until 9/11, but cultural observers say the incident has penetrated the national consciousness in ways that go beyond safety regulations and labor organizing.

A century later, those events have been commemorated from Los Angeles to Vermont, in more than 100 literary works ranging from poetry to plays, documentaries, and an opera.

The fire was an important shot across the bow in the nation’s developing historical consciousness, says playwright and historian Daniel Czitrom, a Mount Holyoke College professor whose play “Triangle,” co-authored with Jack Gilhooley, opens in New York City in two weeks. “It marks the real start of the 20th century understanding of the role that government can have in our public life,” says Professor Czitrom, improving workplace safety and conditions for a largely invisible immigrant class.

Some 400,000 people – nearly 10 percent of the population of Manhattan at the time – turned out for the funeral procession, notes Kathy Newman, English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It has become a singular historical moment in the collective memory we have about ourselves as a country of immigrants,” she says. All the cultural iterations over the years, from the first poem published the day after the fire, up through Friday’s reading of all the names of those who died, form a collective memory of ourself as a nation, she adds.

The fire has achieved an almost talismanic quality. Last year, the new director of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) cited the tragedy as a reason why OSHA publicly penalized a retail company for violations that did not result in a fire, injury, or deaths.

At the recent New Orleans meeting of the American Bar Association’s OSHA Law Committee meeting, where attorneys for both corporations and labor practices convene, the upcoming Triangle fire anniversary was invoked more than once, says lawyer Jonathan Snare, a former acting assistant secretary of Labor for OSHA who now represents corporations. He points out that today’s workplace is very different from the dawn of the past century.

“Many businesses have large departments with many employees who do nothing but focus on safety,” he says. Nonetheless, the events of that day in 1911 still resonate dramatically, he says, perhaps for the simple human power of the loss. He notes that his own grandfather lost a brother in a 1910 workplace accident and “it has affected our entire family – in spite of how long ago it happened.”

Many labor historians point to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire moment as the early template for the reforms of the New Deal – not surprising, as Frances Perkins, secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, witnessed the fire in 1911, notes Rick Eckstein, a labor historian at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Most of labor history is shrouded in detail and obscurity, he notes, but “this event is something that my students have often heard about. The Triangle Fire is something we can always get a good conversation about.”

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