The spirit of the early 20th century was, simply put, the spirit of Progress. New Yorkers who, as children, read by the light of whale oil lamps and crossed the East River by wooden ferryboat now crossed over bridges aglow with electric lights, as if riveted with diamonds. A generation earlier, the tallest structure in the city was a church steeple; now new skyscrapers were topping out at the rate of one every five days. Humans could fly and pictures could move.
The Forverts’s coverage of the fire and public outcry was graced by poet Morris Rosenfeld. In honor of the centenary and Rosenfeld’s writing about it, the Forward Association ran a prize poetry contest for original poems in English and Yiddish.
In November 1909, thousands of New York City garment workers convened a mass meeting at Cooper Union to protest sweatshop conditions. The norm in the burgeoning garment industry included 60- to 80-hour work weeks, flammable scraps strewn around the shops, child labor and providing your own supplies, such as scissors and thread.
Amid the hundreds of commemorations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that are taking place this month in New York City alone, there is something worth pondering before it gets lost: The Triangle fire turned what was considered “a Jewish problem” into a national symbol of reform, and helped move Jews from the margins of society into the mainstream.
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.
The details sound eerily familiar. A fire on the ninth floor of a garment factory. Workers trapped behind exits locked by their employers. Cornered by flames that began raging after a pile of clothes caught on fire. And the horrific choice: jump to their death or be burned alive.
Forward.com provides a chronological guide to the Forverts coverage of the Triangle fire, and links to the stories.
Watch a video from the Forward’s 2011 inaugural gala in which actress Jill Eikenberry and Isaiah Sheffer, founder of Symphony Space, read a letter from a garment worker who survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
By the time the union was done with J.P. Stevens and Co., the boycott of the giant textile manufacturer had so penetrated the culture that the wives of Stevens executives, heading off to cocktail parties, would warn their husbands not to tell anyone where they worked.
Composer Elizabeth Swados has dramatized tragedy before, but never the fear that rises from the gut when flames are sweeping nearby and escape is far away. In creating the music for the most terrifying moments in an original oratorio for the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Swados turned to raw instinct.