Remembering The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 24, The Human Journey Colloquia Series presented “Remembering The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York.” Sacred Heart University students and staff were able to join via Zoom.

The colloquium was presented by language and literature professors, Clare Callahan and Amie Reilly, along with history professors, Kelly Marino and Jennifer McLaughlin.

Marino started off the colloquium with her own presentation, giving context on the time period during and right before the fire.

One of the largest clothing factories in the early 1900’s was The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. According to Merriam-Webster, a shirtwaist is “a woman’s tailored garment (such as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, on March 25, 1911, “a fire broke out in a garment factory near Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story tower was full of flames.”

Due to locked doors and a collapsed fire escape 146 workers, mainly immigrant girls and young women, were killed in the fire. Before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 90 years later, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York.

“Leading up to the fire there were so many complaints from the employees about the unsanitary working conditions within the factory, many dehumanizing to the women working there,” said Marino.

“I found it to be very alarming and unsettling that the workers had to risk their lives every time they went to work, and put themselves in danger just to end up only making as little as $2 a day,” said freshman Amanda Palma.

The conditions led women to go on strike, asking for better conditions and more pay for their long working hours.

“This week’s SHU presentation allowed me to see the story through another lens,” said fashion Prof. Ellen Gang. “Not only did I learn about more of the indignities which the factory workers endured, but I learned about ‘The Mink Brigade’ of socialites and upper-class suffragettes who demanded and generated attention for the factory workers on strike prior to the fire. The women on strike were viewed as streetwalkers–considered unladylike–hysterical, and out of control.”

McLaughlin began speaking from her own presentation which detailed the fire itself, how the fireman in the city responded and the news coverage that took place after the event.

Callahan then presented her own presentation focusing specifically on archival materials including court transcripts, newspaper clippings and photographs.

“We’re going to explore the space in which women fought to be political actors,” said Callahan.

Callahan also detailed accounts from survivors, and said that many women survived only because they decided to leave a few minutes early; a defiant and fireable offense where they worked.

Lastly, Reilly read aloud a poem entitled “Shirt” by Robert Pinsky. Reilly also covered the poem “Sisters In The Flames” by Carol Tarlen.

Reilly commented that when men write about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire they tend to detail the event with the main perspective on the clothing and the physical factory. However, when women poets write about the fire, they use their writing to project their anger towards the injustice the women faced.

“Perhaps it is expected that those of us who are involved in fashion or have worked in the garment industry in NYC would remember and pay homage to the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire because they paved the way for better working conditions for generations to come,” said Gang. “However, the story is about much more than that. It is about fairness, equality, the perception of women, and human dignity, and it is moving to see that the story is reaching a wider audience. It’s a story to be remembered by all.”

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