Using Film to Teach – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Using Film to Teach – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

I used this film today in two classes. The students gave it rapt attention.

Here is the link. You click on it to see the film:

Triangle Factory Fire 1-2 (New York: A Documentary Film, Ep4).avi

Some of the teenage workers who jumped rather than be burned to death.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is the story of an unregulated factory that burned. The doors were locked from the outside to prevent union organizers from entering. There was no fire exit and the upper floors were accessible by elevators, all of which were rapidly knocked out of service by the fire. A great number of the workers, perhaps most of the them, usually teenage girls, who in this day and age would normally be attending high school were trapped on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors. Fire engine ladders only reach six floors. Rather than burn to death the young girls jumped to their deaths.

The factory owners suffered no legal penalties for locking the doors from the outside or in fact any legal penalties as all. They had broken no law. They paid no damages for the dead or injured. The freedom to contract meant that if the dead had wanted protection they should have negotiated for it. After all the bargaining power of a large industrial organization is roughly equal to the bargaining power of a fourteen year old girl. Doesn’t the old fashioned days of self reliance dictate that these impovershed immigrants denied even bathrooms or breaks should have bought insurance if they worried about the lives?

The owners of the ill fated building opened a new factory with the same name up the block in a few weeks. Building inspectors found the doors blocked by stored sewing machines.

The great gentlemen on whose kindness and benevolence, the public depended for worker safety and fair treatment were little better than socially acceptable murderers.

We are told by many publication, including not just a few academics ( Do I need to mention the Chicago School of Economics?) that businesses freed of regulations will self regulate. It is in their best interest,we are told, not to bring unfavorable publicity and they will, of course, exercise good judgment. It seems to me that this historical incident as well as recent events such as the Wall Street meltdown and the gulf oil spill cast some doubt on the efficacy of free market fundamentalism.

But what are facts weighed against the beauty, the elegance of a utopian theory of human success?

When I began teaching, I would on occasion encounter a free market fundamentalist in the class. I made sure they had a opportunity to express their views – up to five minutes to address the class and any literature they wished to present copied and distributed to the class out of my allocation of copies. But in the last few years, they are no more of them. They have disappeared. My current students stand convinced that they are pawns in a badly played game. Many hold on to the idea that through their personal efforts that they will beat the odds of a cruel society where employment for many of them will be difficult because of the sheer numbers of those without jobs. I try to teach them every angle to give them a shot at success. I give negotiating tricks, explain unusual aspects of the law that can be used to a person’s advantage, and explain that lifelong personal development is critical to living a full and significant life. I try to build better human beings. It is a great challenge, not quite as easy as the canned lectures that come with the book and each chapter’s test bank. But that’s okay.

Teaching is an art that calls forth every ability, every insights, every experience to develop thinking significant human beings.

James Pilant


From the web site, Lingua Franca:

Over one hundred years ago, a tragic fire in New York City took the lives of 146 innocent young workers.  That horrendous afternoon, 275 girls started to collect their belongings as they were leaving work at 4:45 p.m. on Saturday.  At 4:46 p.m. the  NYFD Company 72 arrives at the Asch Building.  The fire is spreading towards the ninth and tenth floors, also the workplace for Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees.  Employees on the eighth floor head down, those on the tenth head to the roof, many on the ninth floor have nowhere to go.

Pauline Cuoio Pepe was a nineteen-year-old sewing machine operator at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. “It was all nice young Jewish girls who were engaged to be married. You should see the diamonds and everything. Those were the ones who threw themselves from the window,” Pepe told a Manhattan historian. “What the hell did they close the door for? What did they think we were going out with? What are we gonna do, steal a shirtwaist? Who the heck wanted a shirtwaist?” asked Pepe.

From the web site, Christian Science Monitor:

The fire was an important shot across the bow in the nation’s developing historical consciousness, says playwright and historian Daniel Czitrom, a Mount Holyoke College professor whose play “Triangle,” co-authored with Jack Gilhooley, opens in New York City in two weeks. “It marks the real start of the 20th century understanding of the role that government can have in our public life,” says Professor Czitrom, improving workplace safety and conditions for a largely invisible immigrant class.

Some 400,000 people – nearly 10 percent of the population of Manhattan at the time – turned out for the funeral procession, notes Kathy Newman, English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It has become a singular historical moment in the collective memory we have about ourselves as a country of immigrants,” she says. All the cultural iterations over the years, from the first poem published the day after the fire, up through Friday’s reading of all the names of those who died, form a collective memory of ourself as a nation, she adds.

From the web site, Experimental Geography in Practice, we have a work of art. You’ll have to paste the http into your address bar to see the video. JP

Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

created and curated by Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett

From the web site, More to Explore, The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center Blog:

A shirtwaist is a woman’s button-down blouse modeled on a man’s tailored shirt, a distinctly un-fussy garment compared to the general wardrobe maintained by 19th century woman. As the 20th century opened the shirtwaist was implicated in women’s growing professional freedoms, as well as in their continued workplace oppression.

Worn with a skirt and jacket, the shirtwaist offered the women who were starting to enter the workplace a garment choice more akin to the professional man’s suit than anything available before it. These liberating garments, however, were produced in factories that epitomized the dangerous, exploitive working conditions endured by early 20th century industrial workers before effective labor and safety legislation; workers who were overwhelmingly young, female, and recently immigrated.

And finally, from the web site, Working Class Perspectives:

The first lesson is a familiar one;  don’t mourn, organize.  If that sounds a little cold, let me explain.  The PBS documentary, Triangle Fire, shows that the fire followed on the heels of two years of concerted union organizing in sweatshops across the city.  The owners of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory were particularly stubborn in their refusal to negotiate with the nascent garment workers union, even though some of the most militant union members were drawn from the Triangle Factory workforce.  The PBS film draws heavily on the work of David Von Drehle, now a Time magazine editor, who wrote Triangle Fire:  the Fire that Changed America in 2003.  In a recent interview he argued that we should not see the post-fire reforms as merely the emotional response of a city to the tragedy of the dead girls:

The reason reform happened was because those workers and their colleagues in the New York factories had begun organizing and had begun voting. They had organized an enormous strike in 1909-1910 and were forming coalitions with wealthy progressive leaders…The way change happens is not by having the best idea or by making the most emotional appeal. The way lasting change happens is by winning the attention of the vote-counting politicians, working the system.  Or as Mother Jones said, organize organize, organize.

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