Standing in tragedy’s shadow at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

The Brown Building NYC former home of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (courtesy wallyg at Flickr CC)I almost walked right past it, until the little historical plaque happened to catch my eye.

Today it’s called the Brown Building and is part of NYU (New York University) in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, but one hundred years ago tomorrow, March 25, 1911, it was the site of a horrific fire that led to changes in labor laws and public perceptions of immigrants.

When I craned my neck upwards that day, I saw the windows from which people had jumped. I stood on the very sidewalk where they’d landed. Some say that folks jumped knowing that their bodies could be more easily identified if they died that way instead of burning.

We’ll never know if they really thought that, but can you imagine making such a decision in the last minutes of your life?

It used to be called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building.  The young, mostly female workers there churned out “shirtwaists;” the Gibson Girl-style blouses that were fashionable at the time.

The cotton that the shirts were made from was incredibly flammable. It all happened so fast….

From a tribute on National Public Radio about tomorrow’s commemoration – A Somber Centennial for the Triangle Factory Fire:

“Most of the people who perished in the fire were Jewish or Italian-American women — and several of the victims had been in the U.S. for a very short time. Scores of workers jumped from the eighth and ninth floors of the 10-story building to their deaths. It was their only way to escape the flames — doors were locked to prevent theft, the building’s single fire escape collapsed, and after several trips to rescue workers, the elevator broke down.”

How many tourists, NYU students and other passersby walk past every day, scurrying with their books, preoccupied with their thoughts, never knowing what happened eight to ten floors up?

Triangle Fire deaths commemorated by the Chalk project (courtesy streetpictures at Flickr CC)

One eyewitness to the jumpers that day went on to become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor – Frances Perkins.

She never forgot what she’d seen; here’s her 1964 lecture at Cornell about Triangle.

I highly recommend David Von Drehle’s excellent book “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” and you can also see the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition website and the Chalk! project (volunteers use chalk to inscribe the names of the dead in front of their former homes, all across New York City, on the anniversary of the fire.)

Can you hear the history of the buildings you see? Listen to the whispers….

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