Honoring the women behind the Triangle Shirtwaist fire: Here’s why publishing our stories matters!

STRONG-SPIRITED JEWISH AND CATHOLIC WOMEN gathered because all were involved in New York shirtwaist factories and supported the 1909 strike. Note: Two men appeared at this labor gathering, but sat in the back of the room. Women ran this movement!

THE DEADLY TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE on March 5, 1911. Workers could not escape and plunged to their deaths or died in the blaze.Friendship and Faith promotes cross-cultural friendship by inviting women to publish their stories about friendship. March 25, 2011, is the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York that killed 146 workers and ranks as one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The fire also is a horrific milestone in the American labor movement. While other news media report on the history of the fire this week, we’re focusing on the friendships among these women behind the fire.

The fire came just a little over a year after the huge shirtwaist-workers strike of late 1909, when 20,000 workers took to the streets in a long series of clashes that included jail time for some of the strikers. The whole movement was led largely by Jewish women, working side-by-side with Christian women and some men, as well. The ninth-floor sweatshop that proved so deadly in the Triangle fire was staffed largely by immigrant girls and women—mainly eastern European Jews and southern European Catholics. Despite all the dire warnings raised in the 1909 strike, the Triangle factory ignored all safety measures.

These were tough, smart, courageous women driven by a sense of justice! They formed diverse friendships both in the sweatshops where they worked—and in their after-hours activism. These are our grandmothers and great grandmothers in the work of forming cross-cultural friendships. AND, they wrote about it! They published their stories, just as we are today. Cornell University has established one of the best online collections of original texts for the centennial of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Within that collection, Cornell has published an extended series of memories from a former Triangle employee and labor activist: Pauline M. Newman. She survived the fire because, after years of working at Triangle, she had moved on to work as a labor organizer by the time of the blaze.


Pauline M. Newman (1887-1986) remembers the power of a single story!

FIREMAN POSES in the rubble of the ninth-floor Triangle sweatshop after the fire.One evening I was walking home from a long day’s work. It was summer. But by evening the air was a bit cool and I rather liked the walk home. The sights were familiar, the usual signs of poverty and all the resulting misery therefrom. As I saw the little children playing in the gutter, the men and women looking tired and drab, the dark and filthy tenements I thought: Dear God, will this ever be different?

When I got home I sat down and wrote: “While at work I am thinking only of my own drab existence. I get discouraged and a bit low in my mind—every day the same foreman, the same forelady, the same shirtwaists, shirtwaists and more shirtwaists. The same machines—the same surroundings. The day is long and the task tiresome. In despair I ask: Dear God will it ever be different? And on my way home from work I see again those lonely men and women with hopeless faces, tired eyes; harassed by want and worry—I again ask: Will it ever be different?”

I wrote more of the same and when it was done I decided to send it to the Forward. Of course I did not expect it to be accepted or published. I did not think it was good enough for publication. I was not a writer and I knew it. But, I did want to express my feelings and get them down on paper. There was satisfaction in doing just that. I put the article in the post and did not give it another thought.

A few days later, it was a Saturday, as I was approaching the Triangle factory I noticed a number of my fellow workers holding the Forward and pointing to something, and when they saw me they all shouted congratulation and hailed me as a conquering hero—for my piece was published! I could hardly believe it! But there it was, my name and all. This I believe was one of the highlights in my life. Perhaps a minor one compared with what was to follow in the years ahead. However, at the time it was an achievement I did not anticipate.

Encouraged by the success of my first attempt to give expression to my thoughts and feelings I tried again and again and each time my articles and stories were accepted and published. I became “famous” almost over night.

In a small way I became the voice of the less articulate young men and women with whom I worked and with whom later I was to join in the fight for improved working conditions and a better life for us all.

THE COST OF THE FIRE: This photograph was taken on the day of the fire in 1911 as police began loading the bodies of victims into coffins.

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(Originally published at www.FriendshipAndFaith.com)

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