Doing some research for the Norma Rae chapter in my upcoming Women’s History of Film book (co-written with my colleague Peg Lamphier) I came upon this SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE article by David von Drehle the author of a comprehensive book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
I like it because he talks about the real, painstaking research work he undertook to tell the whole full story some 8 decades after it happened. People don’t often realize the work writers do to find bits of history across several archives in order to tell one story.
So it’s a good article for that – and for reminding us that unions work to make workplaces more safe and income more equitable and I’m tired of reading things written by people who don’t seem to remember disasters like this one – is that because they largely involved the loss of female life?
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished when a fire broke out in a garment factory in New York City. For 90 years it stood as New York’s deadliest workplace disaster. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
The author behind the authoritative retelling of the 1911 fire describes how he researched the tragedy that killed 146 people
On March 25, 1911, a pleasant springtime afternoon, a fire broke out in a garment factory near Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story tower was full of flames. Onlookers, drawn by the column of smoke and the clamor of converging fire wagons, watched helplessly and in horror as dozens of workers screamed from the ninth-floor windows. They were trapped by flames, a collapsed fire escape and a locked door. Firefighters frantically cranked a rescue ladder, which rose slowly skyward—then stopped at the sixth floor, fully extended. Pressed by the advancing blaze, workers began leaping and tumbling to their deaths on the sidewalk. Other workers perished in the flames, still others plunged into an open elevator shaft, while behind the factory two dozen fell from the flimsy fire escape. In all, 146 workers, most of them immigrant young women and girls, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. For 90 years it stood as New York’s deadliest workplace disaster.