Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Commemoration Today

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire next month, the Hebrew Free Burial Association will host a memorial ceremony today at the gravesites of the 22 victims it buried in the wake of the tragedy. The ceremony will be held on the 100th yahrzeit of the day the victims died – at Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island.

On March 25, 1911, 146 people died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in Greenwich Village, and on March 25, 2011, New York will remember that day with a series of events and exhibits. Most of the victims were young, underpaid, immigrant women who worked long hours in unhealthy, unsafe conditions. The fire led to major changes in workplace labor laws and fire safety laws.

updated – excerpted from remarks by Amy Koplow, Executive Director HFBA, at the yahrzeit ceremony:

image courtesy David Karp

On the 25th of Adar, 5671, March 25, 1911 146 people, many of whom were adolescents, were killed in the worst workplace disasters to happen in the US until that point in time. The victims, the majority Jewish, were burned to death or fell to their deaths in their efforts to escape the flames.

Why? At the Triangle waist factory, no health and safety regulations . Owners had shut out the union. The banks of sewing machines dripped oil that saturated the wooden floors. Sweatshops had stores of flammable fabric. A fire department ill equipped for fires higher than the 6th floor of a building. The Triangle factory was on the 8-10th floors.

The irony was what these immigrant men and women were producing – shirtwaist – the fashion precursor to women’s blouses. It was one of the first mass produced clothing items, becoming fashionable around 1890. Being mass produced, using a relatively modest amount of fabric, the shirtwaist was the first example of something fashionable and affordable for all women as it was produced for all price points. In a sense you could say the shirtwaist was the first significant garment that democratized fashion for women. It is ironic that this garment that gave every woman the opportunity to be fashionable was produced under dreadful conditions in sweatshops. Between 1890 and 1900, the number of sweatshops increased by over 300%, employing 83,000 men and women.

So on that fateful Saturday late afternoon, a workday for those in sweatshops who worked 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s fate was sealed once the fire began, started perhaps from a lit cigarette a man dropped inadvertently in a pile of fabric scraps.

HFBA, started in 1888 as a burial society for the poor immigrants on the Lower East Side stepped forward that terrible day to care for the victims and in the ensuing days offered to help the non-Jewish victims as well. HFBA’s mission is chesed shel emet – the ultimate act of loving kindness to do a supreme good deed for someone who can never help you in return.