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TSF Lecture at Art League of Long Island
by Debbie Wells
In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Art League of Long Island (ALLI) presented a lecture, “Honoring the Women of the Historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911” in a unique way by having two speakers, both artists, describe their personal connections to this important part of American history. As the Chair of the Board of Directors of ALLI, I arranged for this dual lecture as a way of portraying my personal experience of researching the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (TSF) tragedy and also reckoning with it as a subject for art.
About the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a company of over 500 employees (mostly hardworking young Jewish and Italian immigrant women) located in the heart of Greenwich Village, right near Washington Square Park. In typical sweatshop conditions, this company produced crisp “Gibson Girl” style blouses that were then the rage. The building, restored to its original glory, is now part of the New York University campus, but has a plaque commemorating its history that every American child learns about in school.
What happened was this: On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the TSF 8th floor at the end of the workday. Chaos ensued. It is contended that the doors were locked. There were certainly many fire hazards inside. People on the street witnessed helplessly as workers jumped out of windows to escape the flames. Fire trucks were ill equipped, lacking ladders high enough to reach the upper floors. Elevators ran as long as they could as workers pressed into
the cars, while some tumbled down the elevator shaft. All of this happened in only 18 minutes. In the end, 146 people died. Shortly after, there was a trial, but the two owners, known as the “Shirtwaist Kings”, were acquitted of wrongdoing, arousing the cry of injustice from the public. However, the lives of these workers were not sacrificed in vain because the tragedy impelled change in America – the rise of the labor union movement and fire safety regulations.
Uncovering My Family History and the Connection to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
About 12 years ago, my son was doing his American History homework and mentioned that he was learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. My grandmother-in-law, Anne Nicholas-Lerman, was visiting from Florida and explained that her aunt was one of the 146 victims. The whole family immediately wanted to know more. Then she showed us a beautiful photograph of 18-year old Annie Nicholas, who was a button-maker at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. My son has the framed picture in his bedroom and we all treasure this family heirloom.