AMERICAN DANCE THEATER
'.ne, Detroit Opera House
Striking shirtwaist makers
selling copies of The Call, the
New York socialist newspaper
Catastrophe Centenn al
PBS film recalls sweatshop fire
at Triangle Waist Company.
Special to the Jewish News
he Lower East Side is synony-
mous with the wave of Jewish
immigrants that arrived in the
U.S. at the end of the 19th and beginning
of the 20th centuries.
Many Jews, consequently, have come
to view the infamous Triangle Waist
Company fire, which claimed the lives
of 146 New Yorkers on a Saturday after-
noon in March 1911, as a Jewish event.
Its inclusion in a couple of recent docu-
mentaries, The Jewish Americans and
Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, only
solidified the tragedy's place in American
In fact, a large number of Italian immi-
grants perished in the blaze alongside
Jews. Of greater significance, the catastro-
phe became the catalyst for a host of laws
and regulations protecting workers.
It is this progressive legacy, played
out in the battle between desperate
laborers and powerful company own-
ers, that is the focus of the gracefully
constructed and deeply rousing new PBS
doc, Triangle Fire. The one-hour program
airs Monday, Feb. 28, at 9 p.m. as part of
PBS's American Experience series.
The Triangle's owners, Max Blanck
and Isaac Harris, were early adopters of
new technology such as faster sewing
machines. They so dominated the mar-
ket for the essential women's garment
of the day that they were known as the
But success breeds imitation, and
soon there were 500 blouse makers in
Manhattan. Faced with increased compe-
tition, rising costs and looming changes
in women's fashions, Blanck and Harris
kept the pedal to the metal to maintain
their profit margins.
Most of the pressure fell on their
employees, who worked six days a week,
were continually suspected of stealing
fabric and were required to pay for their
needles, thread and even electricity.
And yet the Triangle, located in
Greenwich Village and with its modern
machines, was considered one of the
most desirable factory jobs in the area,
which makes one ponder the conditions
at the other sweatshops.
It's difficult today to grasp the impor-
tance of the young women's meager wages
to their families. Any loss of pay — for a
piece of fabric ruined by a balky machine,
say — meant less food for everyone.
Without strength in numbers, how-
ever, garment-industry workers were
powerless to negotiate better wages
and working conditions. Their outrage
finally culminated in a general strike in
November 1909 that resulted in conces-
sions from the numerous small firms.
But Blanck and Harris would agree to
only minimal compromises.
Employing still photos and reenact-
ments, augmented by interviews with
contemporary historians in an empty
space that perhaps once housed a gar-
ment factory, the filmmakers construct
a concise, vivid history that nonetheless
can't possibly prepare us for the horrific
cataclysm that occurred at the Triangle
factory on March 25.
The door to one stairway was routinely
locked in a misguided security measure.
When fire broke out, the 200 workers on
the eighth and ninth floors had limited
exit routes — including a slow-moving
elevator and a fire escape that, under
the weight of people, tore away from the
building and collapsed.
The fire department responded
promptly, but the ladders only reached
the sixth floor. Dozens of employees
jumped or fell to their deaths.
The massive loss of life in broad day-
light, while a horrified crowd of bystand-
ers and relatives watched helplessly,
impelled the New York state Legislature
to reform the labor laws.
Produced to coincide with the 100th
anniversary of the tragedy, Triangle Fire
is straightforward (albeit moving) his-
American Experience: Triangle Fire airs 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28, on
Detroit Public Television-Channel 56.
THE AMERICAN CLASSIC,
Thursday, March 3. at 7:30 pm
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