Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

At first, passers-by thought they were seeing bundles of cloth being tossed into the street. It took them a few minutes to realize they were seeing women, their voluminous skirts billowing out as they leaped from eighth- and ninth-story windows, desperately trying to escape the fire behind them.
Within 18 minutes, 146 people, most of them young women and girls, lay dead or dying on the paving stones of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village.

Kevin Baker, New York Times, 1999

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred on this day exactly 100 years ago and remains one of the greatest workplace tragedies in history. The building, located at 29 Washington Place, is now owned by NYU and contains (among other things) the school’s Grey Art Gallery. Museum studies students and gallery curators teamed up to create a small yet moving exhibition commemorating the fire’s centennial.

The gallery has four major sections: the fire, legislative aftermath, 50th anniversary, and contemporary memorial activities. Doing my best to ignore a gaggle of giggling NYU undergrads assigned to visit the exhibition, my eyes drifted over mounted photographs and newspaper articles of the day. It is remarkable that such a spare collection of images with few historical artifacts was so very moving. But the gallery is really at its best when illustrating the tremendous improvements to workplace safety and union power that followed the Triangle Fire.

The best 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!”

–Garment worker union organizer Pauline Newman

Besides discussion of current commemorative events there was little mentioned about the contemporary plight of garment workers in sweatshops in New York City and abroad. But standing there in the middle of the gallery, I realized that I have no idea who made the clothes I am wearing and under what conditions they were manufactured. As far as the US has come in workplace safety and regulation, it is still all too easy to acquire goods made by ill-treated individuals in unsafe conditions.

If only all exhibitions were as provoking…


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