Art ● Memory ● Place

Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

January 11–July 9, 2011


One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant families, perished in a tragic and avoidable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building (now NYU’s Brown Building), on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. The fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors. With many of the stairways blocked, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor. Although it was extinguished in less than half an hour, the Triangle Fire was New York City’s largest workplace disaster before 9/11.

The exhibition results from an innovative collaboration between the Grey Art Gallery and graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History. Divided into four sections, it begins with the ladies’ garment workers’ strike of 1909, then chronicles the fire itself, the display of bodies at the morgue, press coverage, and funeral processions and other memorials, including legislative action. Section two records the fire’s legacy during the New Deal era, noting the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and examining its representations in journalism and mural painting. The third section explores activities surrounding the fire’s fiftieth anniversary in 1961, including commemorative ceremonies, scholarly publications, interviews with survivors, and landmarking.Demonstrating renewed interest in the fire’s legacy today, the final section investigates contemporary memorial activities, both on site and in the form of visual representations in community projects and performance art—along with works of scholarship, film, music, and literature, including children’s books.

Art ● Memory ● Place concludes with a call for continuing vigilance and political action to protect the rights of garment workers, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The exhibition is dedicated to the fire’s victims and survivors, and their descendants. Documenting a century of commemorations, it traces the many social and political advances inspired by the tragedy, and the myriad ways in which its memory has been claimed, contested and re-invigorated.

Strike, Fire, Aftermath: 1909—1919

As the fire blazed in the Asch Building, fellow New Yorkers—many of whom had just been strolling in Washington Square Park— watched in horror as Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employees jumped to their deaths.
Only thirteen months earlier, in November 1909, the city had witnessed these and other workers struggle against the exploitative labor practices that many immigrants faced in New York’s garment industry. Infuriated by crowded spaces, long hours, and dangerous, unsanitary conditions, some 20,000 shirtwaist workers went out on strike, demanding better working conditions and recognition for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The “Uprising of the 20,000” alerted the public to their demands and their capacity for organizing.  Although the strike improved conditions for many in the city’s garment industry, key companies such as Triangle held out against demands for factory safety and union recognition. Then  tragedy struck. The Triangle fire quickly came to symbolize the need for union organizing and labor protections.

The fire made headlines throughout the city, but New Yorkers’ reactions were by no means unanimous. The event at once inspired public protests, charity relief efforts, union building, and legal reforms. Public outcry pushed the New York State legislature to create the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), which brought together government, organized labor, and social reformers. In the three years of its activity, the FIC pushed through over 30 bills, addressing issues such as workplace fire safety, women’s labor, and factory inspections.

Grief and remorse over the Triangle tragedy consumed New York City. In large public actions, modes of memorializing the victims revealed the chasm that divided the city’s working class from its upper and middle classes. While many workers and their allies viewed the fire as a catalyst for change and political protest, some in the middle and upper classes, fearing unrest, sought instead to control working-class outrage and speed the process of healing and forgetting.

Margaret Fraser, Samantha Gibson, Megan Innes, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Alana Rosen, and Ilana Weltman

Lest We Forget Memorializing Through Reform, 1919—1945

In 1913, International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) organizer Pauline Newman declared:  “The way to honor the memory of the dead is to build up a strong and powerful organization that will prevent such disasters … and serve as a monument to the dead. Lest we forget!” Between the 1920s and early ’40s, organized labor and political reformers paid tribute to the Triangle fire’s victims by continuing to build a strong union movement and advocating for legislation to ensure better working conditions.

Throughout the 1930s, the hardships of the Great Depression inspired passionate and widespread labor organizing, and for the first time unions emerged as a significant political force. Frances Perkins, who had been an eyewitness to the fire and a key player in the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet as the first female Secretary, heading the Department of Labor. There she sought to extend the FIC’s worker protections to the nation as a whole. These reforms constituted one facet of the sweeping New Deal programs, in which government played a more protective role in American workers’ lives, and workers exercised their citizenship through active participation in unions.

In Manhattan, the fledgling coalition of government, industry, and organized labor created the Central High School of Needle Trades (now the High School of Fashion Industries). The founders commissioned Ernest Fiene to paint a mural for their new building’s auditorium. Completed in 1940, Fiene’s History of the Needlecraft Industry positions the Triangle fire at a critical juncture between the exploitative labor conditions characteristic of the early garment industry and the strong worker protections ushered in by unionism and New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Fiene’s mural, executed in fresco secco, comprises two monumental panels, each measuring 17 feet high by 65 feet wide. The first panel, “Victory of Light Over Darkness,” depicts the early years of the industry, while “Harmony and Achievement” portrays a new vision of society in which labor joins the governing coalition. The mural functions, in Fiene’s words, “as a lesson in democracy to the young.”

Juxtaposed here with details from Fiene’s mural is the August 1, 1938, issue of Life Magazine, which hit the newsstands while the mural was in progress. Its cover story on the ILGWU similarly contrasts past exploitation of immigrant workers, including the Triangle fire, with a utopian vision of contemporary union life.

Amanda Pietrzykowski, Maggie Schreiner, and Emily C. Wright

1961: A Turning Point

On March 25, 1961, the ILGWU held a public ceremony at the scene of the tragedy to commemorate the Triangle fire’s 50th anniversary. New York City Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were among the featured speakers,  joined on the platform by survivors of the fire and union organizers. Later that day, the ceremony moved to the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. For weeks prior, ILGWU president David Dubinsky and Leon Stein, editorof Justice, the union’s publication, had worked furiously to organize an impressive roster of speakers and partners, including elected officials and  representatives from New York City’s Fire and Police Departments and New York University. Dubinsky and Stein also reached out through the dense network of union locals to ensure that on the day of the ceremony, the intersection of Greene and Washington Streets would be filled with union members. The union’s simultaneous campaign to enforce mandatory sprinkler legislation in New York State factories demonstrated that the fire still being used to bolster arguments for worker safety.

The 50th anniversary marked a milestone in commemorations of the Triangle fire. From 1961 onward, commemorative ceremonies took place yearly in March, demonstrating the importance placed by the union on sustaining public memory of the fire and its victims, and on recognizing its survivors. An important legacy of the 50th anniversary was the choice of locations; the physical sites connected to the fire were used as rallying points. Both the former Asch Building and the Evergreens Cemetery provided tangible, physical connections to the tragedy.

The following year, in 1962, Leon Stein published The Triangle Fire, a book based on the oral histories he collected from survivors in the late 1950s. Stein felt compelled to preserve these first-hand accounts—direct memories of the fire—before they were lost to time. Both the oral histories and Stein’s book provide invaluable testimonies to the circumstances before, during, and after the fire. The stories highlight what survivors viewed as the most significant parts of their history in terms of the role they played in keeping the fire’s legacy alive.  Stein’s account is still one of the most important resources on the fire, personalizing the events and humanizing the statistics of that tragic day.

Norma Jean Garriton, Tracie Logan, and Autumn Heath-Simpson

Place, Scholarship, and Action:Contemporary Commemorations, 1981—2011

For this centennial year, the number of groups and individuals who are commemorating the fire has grown. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, founded in 2008 in anticipation of the fire’s 100th anniversary, has created a forum for diverse constituencies—including activists, artists, labor unions, and scholars—to collaborate. People are participating in the 2011 commemorations for many reasons, including family connections to the fire’s victims; intellectual inquiry; artistic expression; political advocacy; and personal identification with the fire victims’ struggles as immigrants, workers, women, and New Yorkers. The Coalition serves as a nationwide resource, coordinating and publicizing centennial events and commissioning a permanent, public memorial.

Contemporary acts of remembrance—in the arenas of art, civic life, education, politics, theater, and scholarship— help ensure the fire’s continuing significance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and, through new media and scholarship, the re-invigoration of its memory. Similarly, the ongoing struggle to achieve humane labor conditions and empower garment workers in the U.S. and worldwide provides clear evidence that the fire’s legacy still calls for political action.

The Triangle fire often serves as a historical reference point for contemporary tragedies. Just days after the Twin Towers fell, Joshua Brown wrote in the New York Times:

The people who jumped from the towers, bodies silhouetted against the blue sky in their terrible plummet to earth, evoked to me the desperate falls of the young women and men in the … Triangle Shirtwaist fire who, trapped on unreachable floors, leapt to their deaths to escape the flames.

Ninety years later, the images of loss and desperation associated with the Triangle fire still resonated in the public imagination.  That same year, the fire’s last survivor, Rose Freedman, died at the age of 107. Throughout her long life, she remained a committed advocate for labor reform.

Hester Goodwin, Carolina Herrera, Maren Lankford, and Amita Manghnani

Starts Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011
Ends Saturday, Jul 09, 2011
Curator Co-curated by graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History, in collaboration with Professors Lucy Oakley and Marci Reaven

Art ● Memory ● Place is co-curated by graduate students in NYU’s Programs in Museum Studies and Public History, in collaboration with Professors Lucy Oakley and Marci Reaven. The exhibition is supported by New York University’s Humanities Council, Humanities Initiative, Visual Arts Initiative, and Graduate School of Arts and Science.