Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire. In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below. The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families. The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.
The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated. There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations. Such was sweatshop life in those days.
This was my grandmother’s generation. My father’s mother was one of five sisters. The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places. One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came - she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California. Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty years. Such choices they faced!
Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.