March is Women’s History Month

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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

a Annie NicholasAnnie Nicholas (1893-1911)

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.

The 100th Anniversary of the fire, in 2011, prompted me to delve deeper into the life of Annie Nicholas via the internet. As I googled for more information, I came across the on-line archives of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Kheel Center. Why were these Ivy League scholars interested in the fire? It made sense because TSF was the catalyst for the development of unions and regulated working conditions. When I contacted someone there, she was thrilled that I was willing to donate a copy of Annie’s photograph for their archives and immediately posted it on-line.

I was then referred to TSF historian and journalist Michael Hirsch, who had created an HBO documentary and written articles in the New York Times about his continuing research on TSF. Not only did he invite my family to participate in the 100th Anniversary Celebration and Parade at the original site on March 25th, but he also informed me that my husband’s grandmother is the oldest living descendant of any TSF victim. We did attend the ceremony and it was very exciting to be in the first row with thousands of people behind us and listen to several political dignitaries, including the US Secretary of Labor, State Senators and the Mayor of New York City, speak about the importance of the TSF event and how it has affects on our society even today.

Later, I decided to create a lecture so I could share my perspective and family history. One of the most interesting anecdotes is “The Story of the Scissors”. I told Michael Hirsch the family legend that Annie had first escaped the fire and then ran back to get her scissors because they were so important to her livelihood. Rather than be touched by the tale, he explained to me that this type of family lore was typical and unrealistic. Based on his research of police and fire accounts and studies of floors plans and more, he had concluded that every tale of a worker running back was just a story that parents had created to ease their suffering and belief that their girls had not died in vain. He told me that he had heard many reports like mine, except people went back for sisters, rings, friends, etc. I carefully told Grandmother Anne this fact, but because she was 97 at the time, I was afraid to upset her, to think that her life-long story was probably not true. Her answer was endearing, “Well, maybe that was true for everyone else, but my parents would never have lied to me.” Later, she agreed that Michael Hirsch was most likely correct, but rewriting the family history in one’s head is no easy task.

Collaboration with an Artist

How I met the other speaker, Jennifer Merz, is a story in itself. On my way to one of our Artful Circle gallery tours, I stopped at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Museum to view their latest exhibit. I encountered her beautiful collages inspired by TSF. Since I had discovered that my husband’s relative was one of the TSF victims, this subject was of special interest. I did not realize at first that this would be a topic of interest to fashion design students, but TSF was not just part of immigrant struggles and labor union history, it is also a crucial episode in the narrative of the garment industry.

Inspired by the events of the fire, professional artist and children’s book author/illustrator, Jennifer Merz created a 32-page non-fiction picture book called SEW STRONG: The Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire.“ She artfully composed cut and torn paper, photos, lace, fabrics and trims to create collage illustrations to portray Triangle’s story. Examples of her work on this project and her published children’s books can be seen on her website,

JMerz_You-Never-Come-Back_Low-Res“You Never Came Back” by Jennifer Merz

I contacted Jennifer and explained why I was interested in her work. She replied and we agreed to meet and compare our research methods and results. We discovered that my mission was a personal journey, while she was using the TSF as a subject for an illustrated book. Independently, we both realized that we were moved by the story, yet expressed our findings so differently.

Presenting Our Lecture at the Art League of Long Island

IMG_0760(L-R) Jennifer Merz and Debbie Wells, Speakers

Although our Artful Circle lectures always showcase an art theme, this lecture is unusual and especially close to my heart. Turning this aspect of family history into a presentation and sharing it has proved to be very rewarding. In addition to the personal satisfaction, it was fascinating for me to collaborate with another artist who interpreted history in a creative and meaningful way.

Featured Photo: Annie Nicholas Shirtwaist Banner at the 100th Anniversary Parade, 2015  by Debbie Wells


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