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110 Years Later, The Triangle Factory Fire ‘Still Has Lessons To Teach’

Published Thursday, March 25, 2021
by Judy Baston/
110 Years Later, The Triangle Factory Fire ‘Still Has Lessons To Teach’

March 25th, 1911.  

A dropped cigarette on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory adjacent to New York City’s Washington Square started the fire. Doors were locked and one opened inward.  So 53 Workers (mostly young women) jumped.  Nineteen fell down the elevator shaftMore than 20 fell from the fire escape and 50 burned on the factory floor.

With 102 Jews among the 146 Workers killed in the fire, the sorrow and outrage in the Jewish community was deep and strong, and to me, this tragedy - acknowledged as Labor and Feminist History - became part of Jewish History as well.

Right after the fire, anger spanned the breadth of the Jewish community.

“This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city,” Socialist Rose Schneiderman cried at a major meeting after the fire. “Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my Sister Workers.  Every year thousands of us are maimed.”

And at that same meeting, leading Reform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise said: “It is not the action of God, but the inaction of man that is responsible.  The disaster was not the deed of God, but the greed of man.”

Some workplace safety reform was enacted in the years following the fire, but in the intervening 110 years, has the fire really been rememberedMostly by the now defunct and Schneiderman-founded International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Jewish Labor Committee or the Workers Circle on significant anniversaries.

However, at the centennial of the fire 10 years ago, the group Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition was born and it holds yearly commemorations (this year, virtually) on March 25th.

Visit for details.

Twenty-one years ago, historian Paula Hyman claimed that “for American Jews, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is no longer a central evocative symbol.”

“American Jews are far removed from their Working Class past and the Lower East Side they seek to remember is suffused with nostalgia, but not with pain.  It is the mythic launching pad for success, not the site of suffering,” Hyman said.

I don’t agree with the late Hyman and think she would have been quite surprised by the response across the Jewish Community to the Triangle Centennial 10 years ago.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, several hundred people filled the Jewish Community Library for the Northern California centennial commemoration, but I wish I could point to continued attention and activity in the Jewish Community to Triangle and the issues it represents.

Back when I worked as West Coast Public Affairs Coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), I was sent to Honolulu during a strike of Blue Collar State Employees.

I was surprised at the high support for the Strike among White Collar Professionals and when I asked some of them why, they immediately told me of a grandfather or great-aunt who had worked in the sugar cane or pineapple fields.

I so envied their strong sense of identification with the challenges that faced earlier generations of their family.

What Triangle brought into sharpest focus 110 years ago was the lack of workplace safety, and the past year of COVID-19 has found us facing major new challenges to maintain workplace - and public - safety and health.

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