Friday, March 25, 2011

Triangle Shirtwaister Factory

One hundred years ago today, 146 people, 123 of them women, perished in the Triangle shirtwaister factory fire. This has been a piece of history I've recounted many times to students, partly to let them know that the history of working women is far longer than most think. For my current students, this history is very close to home--indeed, today, as the commemorations were going on, we were having class in another room in that same building.

While I had a great class today, complete with a guest speaker--a gossip columnist from the Daily News--there did seem something a little too frivolous about teaching celebrity culture as outside a procession marched carrying the names of all the people who died that day. We heard bells toll, voices raised, chanting and watched representatives from schools, unions and those people who wanted to pay homage to those long-lost New Yorkers. In the current industrial climate, it seems such suffering is now forgotten, or, once again, considered acceptable in the face of the demand for ever-increasing profits at the workers cost. Ironically, today we were talking about consumerism, celebrity and materialism, topics with a critical edge but ones that still seem the privilege of an elite that don't have to worry as much about survival.

NYU (I presume) placed purple and black bunting in the former factory's window and the NY Fire Dept. had a fire engine outside the building, complete with a ladder going up to those same windows. There were wreaths outside on the sidewalk where people had placed flowers and written the deads' names in chalk on the pavement. A parade with photos and banners went down Broadway and across to Greene Street. It was all very moving.

This tragedy has always touched me. As an event linked to the histories of working (and working-class) women, consumer culture, Progressive era society and the nascent mass produced fashion industry, it is something that touches on my research issues, but it has also always moved me. Seeing the tributes and the girls' photographs brought tears to my eyes. I am pleased New York city has remembered this anniversary with such delicacy and respect.

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