This Sunday, March 25, marks the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire. The fire was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history, and it was made worse by the terrible working conditions inside the factory. When workers tried to flee the blaze, they ran into locked doors and out onto a flimsy fire escape that quickly collapsed, dropping some to their deaths and trapping others inside. As documented in the Frederick Hugh Smyth Collection of Fire Photographs in the New-York Historical Society Library, the Fire Department’s hoses could not reach the upper floors of the building as the fire raged. In just over 18 minutes, 146 people — 129 of them women — lost their lives.*
A Terrible Fire in a Hotbed of Women’s Activism
The fire took place amidst an upsurge in women’s political activism in New York City, one that centered, in many ways, on the world of garment work. The young, immigrant women who made shirtwaists were organizing themselves into unions, led by dynamic organizers including Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman. College-educated middle-and-upper-class women, including Frances Perkins, lent their support to workers through the Women’s Trade Union League, which raised funds to support strikes, advocated for new regulations on working conditions, and urged women of all classes to purchase union-made garments. In the immigrant communities of Manhattan and Brooklyn, nurses Lillian Wald and Margaret Sanger offered support to families in settlement houses and — controversially — information about family planning to women. As they mourned the victims of the Triangle Fire, these women gathered together and renewed their devotion to many causes in New York City, including the long-running campaign for women’s suffrage.
Sunday also marks the final day of Hotbed, our current exhibition in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. Hotbed chronicles the overlapping movements and struggles that blossomed in the hothouse of New York City in the early 20th century, and shows how these movements energized the fight for the right to vote in New York State. While we didn’t plan it this way, the connection feels appropriate, as Hotbed features the voices and images of many women whose lives were shaped, in one way or another, by the Triangle Fire.
Commemorating the Triangle Fire at New-York Historical
We are celebrating the final weekend of Hotbed with those who led the crusade for women’s rights just over 100 years ago. Visitors can meet suffragists who won the vote in New York in November 1917—three years before the 19th Amendment! Portrayed by Living Historians, the suffragists will share stories about their contributions to the battle for the ballot. Visitors can ask about their early 20th-century wardrobe and special accessories, learn how they marched in parades, discover what it was like to canvass the city for voters, and make a suffrage cockade!
To commemorate the Triangle Fire on Sunday, our family programs team will be turning the entrance of Hotbed into a living memorial. Suffragists will discuss the role of the fire in shaping women’s politics and activism in New York City. Visitors will also be invited to draw or write a message on a shirtwaist-style notecard and add it to the entrance wall as part of our commemoration. Look for the banner that asks “In honor of the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, how do we protect workers today?”
After Sunday, the Legacy Lives On
While Hotbed closes on Sunday, the legacy of the Triangle Fire — and the women who fought to prevent future disasters — will live on at New-York Historical. The events of the fire itself, as well as many of the organizers involved, featured prominently in our permanent digital interactive exhibition, Women’s Voices. These same women come alive in our multimedia film experience, We Rise. They inspire teens in our tech scholars program. And for those wishing to learn more, the history of the Triangle Fire is free and available to all through our Massive Open Online Course, “Women Have Always Worked,” led by pioneering women’s labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris.
Join us on Sunday, or any day thereafter, to honor the legacy of these women, and to celebrate their continued power to inspire us today.
Top image credits: Triangle Fire Memorial March, 1911 (as featured in Hotbed). Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.
* This post has been updated to reflect the number of women who died in the fire: 129, not 123. Thanks to genealogist Michael Hirsch for his correction, and for his work identifying the victims of the fire, a full list of whom can be found on the website of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell University.