Annelise Orleck: Clouds Blur Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’s Meaning

Source: The NY Jewish Week, 3-10-11

As centennial of Triangle blaze nears, historians debate event’s Jewish character.

Burning topic: Was tragic fire a Jewish issue?

It is just weeks away from the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York City’s worst workplace disaster prior to Sept. 11. But instead of providing clarity, the time since the March 25, 1911 tragedy, and the array of commemorative events being held this month, has raised at least one befuddling question: to what extent was the fire a specifically Jewish event?

After all, the majority of the fire’s 146 victims were Jewish immigrant women, and it was Jewish organizations, from B’nai B’rith and The Yiddish Forward, to workers’ unions dominated by Jews, that brought the fire to public attention. But leading historians of the fire still disagree vehemently over how much the Jewish character of the event matters.

“Within the Jewish and Italian communities, it still does have a unique resonance,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of 20th-century American history at Dartmouth who has written extensively about the fire. “But to the country and to the world at large, it [has been] less significant that the victims were Jewish and Italian than that they were young girls.”

The fire, set off by a match thoughtlessly tossed away, and exacerbated by the fact that the factory’s exits were locked, killed 146 mostly teenage women in less than 20 minutes. But factory deaths were common then, if not that numerous at one time, which has led scholars to believe that the most salient feature that forced the event into the national consciousness was the age and gender of the victims. “If they were just Jewish men, or grown men, it probably wouldn’t have had the impact it did,” Orleck said.

Many were girls barely 15 who had jumped to their deaths from the nine-story factory in Greenwich Village. A public funeral was held two weeks later, with several of the victims so badly burned they were impossible to identify. Nearly 400,000 New Yorkers joined in the public mourning ceremonies, which gave momentum to the slate of workers’ rights legislation that followed, from collective bargaining rights to safety codes and minimum wages….READ MORE

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1 Comment

  1. Merle

     /  March 22, 2011

    Dear Bonnie,

    what many of the commemorations are similarly lacking in clarity in is that these events are still happening – garments workers are still dying in factory fires although now in places like China, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

    The victims of the Triangle fire are commemorated in museums and many books. But in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia there are so many garment fires that they barely register (including one that happened on the 14th of Dec 2010 in which at least 29 garment workers were killed).

    Adeola Enigbokan and are premiering an audio visual installation which seeks to highlight the contemporary and global reverberations of the Triangle Fire:

    Terrible Karma: Reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

    Created and Curated by Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett

    Terrible Karma is a mobile audio-visual installation that explores the contemporary, global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on it’s 100th anniversary.

    It brings together oral histories of Triangle fire survivors, audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China, and protest songs by present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

    The title, Terrible Karma, refers to a protest song sung by female garment workers at a rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010), as well as the idea that events of the garment industry past haunt the present – that injustice always comes back. The work arises out of the artists’ – Adeola Enigboken and Merle Patchett – mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to live, work and die.

    The work takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011. The sounds and photographs it presents will be projected from a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside the van’s claustrophobic confines.

    For those not in New York, the work is available to experience and download from the link supplied below.

    To download and for full details go to:


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