Friday, March 25, 2011

The 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire

Today is the centenary of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company. On March 25th, 1911, at least 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, died because the owners of the garment factory sweatshop where they labored over their sewing machines cared more about profits than about the safety of workers. A fire broke out. Within sixteen minutes, about half of those who died had jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor, while the rest died in the fire that roared through the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building, just a block west of Washington Square.

The Triangle fire is at the heart of my 2006 novel Triangle, which I was inspired to write because my paternal grandmother, Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman, finished buttonholes at the Triangle Waist Company in 1909. I am in the HBO documentary about the fire discussing Pauline's violent encounter with a policeman during the uprising of the 20,000 garment workers in 1909.

I don't have much new to say about this event that has not already been said very well by so many other people as the Triangle fire centenary has loomed (other than to insist that the proper term for a 100th anniversary is "centenary" and not "centennial," but I am a lone voice in the wilderness of imprecision.) I have participated in a number of panels and other events, and I spoke this week at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, where my fancier Warburgian maternal forebears were "twice-a-year" Jews.

What are the lessons of the Triangle fire? I fear we are still learning them. Today, please stop to think about where your clothing comes from, and think about the lives of the people who made what you are wearing right now. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? What are their living conditions? What are their working conditions? How much do they get paid? Garment factory workers, many of them children, are still dying in garment factory fires that are shockingly familiar: Locked doors, undocumented workers employed by sub-contractors, extremely unsafe conditions, a fire.

The only difference between 1911 and 2011 is that in this era of outsourcing, now that so many of our cheap garments are made in unsafe factories in third world countries, we outsource our tragedies, too. Are you comfortable in those clothes?


  1. Eloquently said (as always). As vendors of tea, these issues of equity and safety are never far from our minds as they are as pervasive in tea cultivation and processing as they are in clothing manufacture. Thank you for the disturbing photograph, too, for although it is upsetting to see, it helps us to understand the real human cost of tragedies like the Triangle fire.... and, yes, "centenary," thank you!! You ain't quite alone.

  2. You taught me about this entire episode when I read your book several years ago. It has stayed with me and I wrote an entire "sermon" on it for last night for a congregation, in tribute. I hope I did it justice, in memory of the victims. Thanks so much

  3. I do feel comfortable in my clothes, otherwise I feel naked. But, yes, how important are we when we will niggardly use people to be comfortable. And it seems that is the name of the game—comfort. I must admit that I had to look up the word imprecision, but, no, never forget. And always remind. Thank you. And never give up and never give in.

  4. And "look for the union label, in every coat, dress, or blouse."

    At least an idea to strive for these days.

    I wrote a similar piece on my blog, and of course (!) mentioned "Triangle." When I read that book, I knew before I met you that I'd found a friend.