Late Tribute to the Victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911

I wonder why we didn’t learn in history in school anything about the cruel disaster of the Triangle Shirttwist factory fire.

Yesterday I watched the Ric Burn’s first edition (1999) of the fantastic film documentation ( , simply named “NEW YORK”, which got an Emmy award.

I am completely shocked about the disaster 1911!

For all the people who are not informed:

We are in the year 1909. A very courageous woman, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, demanded the opportunity to speak at the mass meeting held at Cooper Union. The reason were the intolerable circumstances under which the shirtwaist workers at the Triangle Company, most of them were very young women, emigrants and children had to work: 6 days a week, up to 20 hours per day, without windows, with insufficient place to work at the sewing machine, without the right to go to toilet, whenever needed, and the lack of the right of curing any disease.

A strikebreaker beat her so much that had broken bones in her back. So she needed help to get the stairs to a speaker’s desk. She was in very weak condition:
These were her words, after she won back her voice:

I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.

Members of the labor union, all men, sit there conjoined at one place and showed almost no reaction. But the victims, the shirtwaist workers jumped from their places and clapped enthused.

But, it was very cold in November 1909. Too cold for the women who demonstrated arm in arm! And the men of the labor union “wasted” no time to help them. So they failed with a demonstration which is a real legend in our history.

And so the inevitable happened in 1911. Somebody threw a cigarette in a bin with highly flammable rests of clothing material in the 10th floor of the Triangle building and it started to burn all of a sudden.

The fire crawled downstairs to the shirtwaist workers. The women and children died in fire, because the doors and stairwells were locked, and also because there were at the 8th floor, which was for the firefighters unreachable. They just could get the 6th floor!

The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three, the oldest victim was 48, the youngest were two fourteen-year-old girls


The Owner of Triangle closed them, because, as it is told in the documentation, the wanted to inhibit that the people of the labor union could control the conditions under which the woman and children had to work.

I will never forget the photos of this inhuman, horrendous disaster which is in the responsibility of the Owner of Triangle who – and this is incredible! – had been found

not guilty.

It was not forbidden to lock the doors and stairways. This was the opinion of the court. What a trauma for the surviving dependants!

The woman felt a wall of fire in her backs and sprang out of the windows. With an unforgettable sound they landed on the street, told a reporter, who has been in telephone cell during this disaster. One could see the smoke from the fire also in the lower east side. People came in mass (Human mankind never changes in some points) and one of them asked a fire fighter what happened. He answered: “Just an accident”.

There were people who didn’t realized that human kinds were falling from the building. Instead of this they thought, that it were black clothes.

The firefighters tried to “clean” the street. Masses of blood run in the canalization.

After this, people in Manhattan were shocked and absolutely angry about that. They didn’t forget the women’s demonstration in 1909, which failed for…nothing?

It had consequences, which were necessary. New Laws and provisions created better conditions for the successors of the victims. And did’nt take a long time, the owner switched to an another building, very close to the burnt building. Did they lean anything?

Supervisor came in the new building to check the realization of the new laws, like 50 working hors a week for women, work for children under 14 years was not allowed and so on.

As they reached the factory they asked, if they are children in the building.

No children

was the answer.

But this…
…was a big lie!

The manager took the children in elevators to hide them!

I see stories behind the story:

As long as men determine the rules in our world and oppress woman, create human beings as “underprivileged people”, nothing will really change.

The human mankind is depressing not willing to learn from history. History is until nowadays something that should be forgotten.

And it should never be forgotten. Not the worst and not the best.

We don’t need a mainstream like:

Forget, you never can change things. They are, what they are.

With this pure ignorance, there is no possibility for a change for equal conditions for all human beings.

We have still children, who work in factories.

We have homeless children, all over the world. Also in Germany. But who wants to see that. Who wants to change that, except the affected?

Feel affected, because we are living – together – in just one world. And all have just one live. Everybody has the to live without getting repressed!

My respect to all the descendants of the victims (the death and the survivors) of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911.

Nobody is everybody. But everbody is unique.

Copyright Gisela B. Laux 2011
December, 4th 2011

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