Terry Prone: New York 1911 Triangle fire bore Stardust similarities

A fire in Manhattan’s garment district in 1911 has so many similarities to the Stardust tragedy. The owners locked windows and doors to prevent workers from getting out with stolen lace.

22nd Apr 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

It happened 70 years before the Stardust tragedy, and at first glance doesn’t seem to have that much in common with that horror.

It was a fire in Manhattan’s garment district in 1911.

The sepia pictures show water being directed into the second-floor windows of a nine-storey building although the sheen on the ground outside the building suggests most of that water fell short.

Behind the puff of water is another New York Fire Department vehicle, this one housing a ladder that reaches the fourth floor. No higher. That was one reason for the high death toll: The ladders couldn’t reach the top floor, where the fire originated in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

New York, then as now, was a fashion centre, and what fashionistas of the time wanted were “shirtwaist” dresses and blouses.

Charles Dana Gibson, an illustrator created the “Gibson Girl”, who evoked the era, with writer Sinclair Lewis claiming she was “the Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of her day”.

The Gibson Girl featured on the cover of Scribner’s Magazine, cycling confidently towards the reader in a crisp shirt-blouse and tucked-in voluminous skirt.

The Triangle company was at the forefront of the many slave-labour companies meeting the requirement, one of the biggest and most successful operators churning out the crisp, centre-buttoned garments which were in such high demand.

They employed hundreds of seamstresses and some men — a minority — most of them in supervisory roles.

The seamstresses tended to come from the immigrant wave which had brought hundreds of thousands of Europeans to Ellis Island, the point at which they were passed for entry into the US or deemed unworthy.

Some of the immigrants who found themselves working on the Triangle’s high-fashion products were teenagers, like Rosie Freedman.

At 14, Rosie survived an anti-Jewish pogrom in her home town and left Russian-occupied Poland for a life of hope and promise in America.

She was on the Triangle payroll, like many other young Jewesses, who had learned their skills in a Tsarist Russia so prejudiced against them as to preclude them from dozens of other possible jobs.

The Triangle pay rates were contentious and had led to a strike as the workers sought to be paid a living wage by several textile factories.

Triangle owners Max Blanck and Ivan Harris weren’t having any of it. They trafficked in workers from elsewhere to strike-break, protecting them from the wrath of the striking workers by hired hoodlums.

They instructed local police to arrest picketers. They won. They were hated by the picketers who were forced by circumstance to lay down their protest signs and go back to work. Being hated didn’t bother them.

The strikes were all about money, not about conditions. Not about health and safety because those couple of words were no part of the employer lexicon at the time. Workers were so glad to get a paycheque that workplace discomfort and danger were simply not a consideration.

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