Thursday, February 20, 2020 -
Print Edition

Unlived dreams 100 years ago

I ALWAYS knew about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which made every American factory never the same since. But I did not know details.

Because this week is the centennial of this terrible tragedy I happened upon a PBS documentary about it. I was spellbound, with my eyes welling up now and then.

The program was complete with black-and-white footage. The way it was presented was by splicing scenes from the 1911 fire with scenes from the 1909 shirtwaist strike.


The nonverbal correlation or connection between what might have been, had the New York community embraced the strikers 1909 by improving their working conditions (such as not leaving young immigrant worker girls locked in a factory), and the 1911 reality of the girls being locked in the shirtwaist company to burn to death . . .


In 1909 Clara Lemlich inspired her fellow female immigrant workers. She publicly spoke out in Yiddish, the language of most of the immigrants girls (though it was predominantly Jewish girls who died, other nationalities perished, too). Clara showed these girls the indignities they were suffering and inspired them to strike — a risky and courageous move, to be sure.

Most of these girls were the sole supporters of their large, loving families.

These labor strikes made a difference. Approximately 20,000 teenage girls marched in the streets.

Many reacted with hostility; some girls received brutal beatings by police.

Others, especially high society women swept up in the suffragette movement, were sympathetic and supportive, sometimes even bailing these young girls out of jail, or marching with them in solidarity.

Many shirtwaist companies yielded to the pressure of the ongoing strikes.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in the Asch bldg. did not.

NOT five minutes before the girls were set to leave work, all dressed in their early 20th-century feminine mufflers, coats and purses in hand, the flames began spreading all too rapidly. All the fabrics, cottons and linens of the sweatshop fed the fire into a frenzy.

It is eerie to think, five minutes later and the factory would have been empty.

Instead, it was filled, with trapped with teenage girls.

Many of them, in frantic desperation and terror of the spreading inferno, framed the windows with flaming skirts behind them — then seconds later flaming skirts billowed in the air as they jumped, often a few girls huddled together, to their deaths. Charred huddled bodies on a sidewalk.

The firemen’s ladders reached  only to the sixth floor. The fire affected girls on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors. They were trapped by locked doors with just some buckets of water, and a narrow elevator shaft that could not hold too many people.

It was Sunday. Onlookers, classy society families, fashionable women dressed in their Sunday best for a stroll in Washington Square Park — clad in the very Gibson Girl shirtwaists that these girls toiled in making — all looked on in horror as the scene unfolded.

Many shouted to the girls not to jump, but to no avail.

At NYU, located next door to the Asch bldg., was a professor and some students, who helped rescue many of the girls, some of the male laborers and foremen.

TODAY, I think of these courageous girls who fought for better labor conditions — young girls who, together, took a stand for what was right. They dreamed beyond their limited, unfair situation, and made a difference in history.

If only their dream had been realized by the labor strike of 1909, not by the tragedy of the fire of 1911.

If only people had responded before there was no choice — responding not as a result of tragedy, but implementing change from a place of morality and strength.

You always hear people talking about those wonderful olden days. Yes, there is a real loss to that old simple charm of a world gone by. There was a lot that was wonderful.

But there was also a lot not so wonderful. And so, when we face challenges today, it is important to remember the positive changes and progress that have come to be known as the reality we all know, which we sometimes take for granted.

I am just thinking of all those unlived lives and unlived dreams of those young immigrant girls — girls who had big dreams, who perished 100 years ago this week.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

Leave a Reply