The circumstances surrounding the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the conflagration of 1911 that figures so prominently in shared narratives of American women’s history, labor history and Jewish history, forces us to acknowledge a “dirty little secret” that tends to get glossed over in the retelling of the history of that event. Indeed, this widely known but rarely discussed or analyzed detail reveals much about the economic and social history of the Jewish people in the United States, perhaps because of the ethnic embarrassment and discomfort it inspires.
Simply put, the owners of the Triangle Waist Company, the villains of this story, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, dubbed New York’s “shirtwaist kings,” were Eastern European Jews like so many of the fire victims.
These two arch “bad guys” had refused two years earlier to give in to the demands of the shirtwaist strikers in the “Uprising of the 20,000.” They would not participate in the Protocols of Peace, which sought to bring order and conciliation to the tumultuous field of labor relations in the garment industry. They had failed to comply with even the most bare-bones state safety regulations, and they locked the doors of the factory from the outside, trapping the workers and dooming them to their fiery deaths. These two immigrants to America shared with the workers the common culture and heritage of Eastern European Jewry. Like the majority of the workers, women and men, Blanck and Harris, counted themselves among the Jewish people.
Blanck and Harris had come to the United States in the 1890s, young Jewish men in search of economic security. They differed little in that way from the families of the fire’s victims and the hundreds of other workers who crammed into Triangle’s workrooms. The two men began the process of moving up the entrepreneurial ladder of the garment trade, starting out as workers and then becoming bosses of one of the largest and most modern of the factories. They had just come a generation earlier than the victims. What did this shared heritage mean for the workers at Triangle, those who perished and those who witnessed the calamity? What did it mean for the larger history of Jewish life in the immigrant era?
For one, in the Jewish milieu, the distance between worker and employer tended to be smaller than that which prevailed across the American industrial scene. Indeed, one of the male victims, Max Florin, a 23-year-old immigrant from Russia and a union member, was engaged to be married to Jenny Blanck, Isaac Harris’s niece. To what degree, no historian has yet asked, did this kind of intimacy, where familial ties like that between Blanck and Florin, or ethnic and religious ties, like those that bound the Jewish workers to their Jewish bosses, shape everyday life on the shop floor and, in a larger sense, the evolving industrial relations in garment making?
The Blanck-Florin romance could not have blossomed in the industries to which most other immigrants flocked, and as such could not have shaped the nature of community life in the other ethnic enclaves. Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Slovak, Irish, and other European immigrants, in the main, came to America and worked for “Yankees.” Laboring in steel mills and in railroad, street-paving, canal-digging, and road-building gangs, they had as their employers people who were primarily white Protestant Americans. These employers considered that they had no responsibility for the millions of immigrants who worked for them. If they distributed charity or improved the conditions in their plants, they did so out of the goodness of their hearts. The work lives and the eventual union activities of these immigrants took shape in large measure as a reaction to the “strangers” for whom they worked and who exploited them. Other than in the movies, a courtship between the niece of the boss and a lowly worker who belonged to a despised union could not have taken place.
For Jewish immigrants, a majority of whom in early-20th-century New York labored in the garment industry, the only line that separated them from Max Blanck and Isaac Harris was one of class. The workers could rightly ask themselves individually and as a collectivity, what right did these two have not only to live so much better than they did, but to exploit them with their fetid work rooms, low wages, and miserable conditions? If “all of Israel are responsible one for the other,” then Blanck and Harris bore an obligation to the women and men who cut, sewed, stitched, and pressed the garments from which they could support their fine lifestyle.
The assumed communal responsibility helps us understand a number of the forces that operated on the Jewish labor scene in the years surrounding the fire. In 1909, amid the tumult of the “Uprising of the 20,000” by Jewish female shirtwaist strikers, Louis Brandeis, Louis Marshall and other notables of the American Jewish world stepped in and basically said that the employers did owe the workers, as Jews, certain basic rights and considerations. These well-connected, self-appointed leaders of the community took it upon themselves to negotiate for the workers with whom the employers would not talk terms. They used the argument, whether accurate or not, that Jews as a whole would suffer and anti-Semitism would increase, if Jewish strikers massed on the streets, picketing Jewish-owned factories, and if Jewish employers subjected their workers to horrendous conditions.
The proximity between Jewish workers and Jewish owners had yet another implication for Jewish life in America. While we cannot know what the female workers bent over the sewing machines on the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors of the Asch Building thought about their future and what that future might have to do with Blanck and Harris, Jewish men in the workroom could see two men, Jews and immigrants, who had begun no differently than themselves and had “made it.” Given the small size of most garment establishments, including Triangle, and the relatively low levels of capital needed to glide from working for someone to becoming a boss, Jewish men, including the unionists, saw in Blanck and Harris not only exploiters who would not listen to either the union demands or the entreaties of men like Brandeis and Marshall, but also models for what they themselves could achieve. If the Blancks, Harrises and all the other owners of the hundreds of garment establishments in New York were entitled to a good life, then they, too, the sewing machine operators, cutters, and pressers, deserved one, too.
That aspiration, whether fulfilled or not, did not put a brake on unionization but stimulated it. The fact that their exploiters came from the same community and shared a common tradition and fate made the workers feel even more justified in their sense of entitlement and their view that the union would be the vehicle to bring them, at least, to a middle-class status for themselves and a different kind of life for their children. The history of the Triangle Waist Company and its fire offers a peek into intra-Jewish communal conflict and makes us think of Jews not just as victims and activists, but also as the exploiters whose inactions put so many in harm’s way.
Hasia R. Diner is the Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and the director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University.