Allyson was a teacher in a 4-6 mixed grade class at a Montessori-inspired supplemental school. Her winning lesson plan “Esthers and Vashtis in the Labor Movement” asks students to compare Jewish labor activists to the well-known Purim characters through audio recordings, articles, and photographs.
Who will you be? Esthers and Vashtis in the Labor Movement
Analyze the rise of the labor movement and the Jewish women who were instrumental in it, in terms of the female characters in the Purim story: Esther and Vashti.
- It is important for us to stand up against injustices in our world.
- Jewish women were crucial in the progression of the labor movement and showed incredible strength that we can draw on and use as inspiration to address the injustices of today.
- How can we be more active in combating injustice around us?
- How can the activism of women in the Torah help guide us in pursuing our own activism? What do figures like Esther and Vashti teach us?
- Threaded sewing needles
Esthers and Vashtis in the Labor Movement
- Review the basic history of the Triangle Fire and working conditions at the time.
- Review the characters of Esther and Vashti in the Purim Story.
- Set up four stations around the room where students will be asked to read, view or listen to primary sources from various Jewish activists in the labor movement.
- Station 1. The students view pictures of Clara Lemlich Shavelson, strikers at the Uprising of the 20,000 and the 1915 Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Students read highlighted portions of Lemlich’s biography.
- Discuss. Was Clara Lemlich Shavelson’s activism more like that of Esther or Vashti?
- Station 2. The students view a picture of Pauline Newman and three other women attending a labor conference. Students read highlighted portions of Pauline Newman's biography and the typescript of the original letter she wrote regarding working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a few years before the fire.
- Discuss. Was Pauline Newmans’s activism more like that of Esther or Vashti?
- Station 3. The students view a picture of Rose Schneiderman. Students read highlighted portions of Schneiderman's biography and the transcript of a speech she gave to protest the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
- Discuss. Was Pauline Rose Schneiderman’s activism more like that of Esther or Vashti?
- Station 4: The students are provided with squares of felt, scissors, sewing needles already threaded. The students sew on a button, then cut and blanket stitch a buttonhole. Students are treated as if they are workers doing piecework. They are paid with an orange slice for acceptable work.
- Explain. Piecework was usually done at home for a penny a piece. Often, all members of the family had to contribute pieces so that they could earn enough to live. This type of work arrangement prevented the formation of labor unions powerful enough to make demands. The rise of the labor movement came after workers moved into factories and could organize in the early 20th Century.
- Station 1. The students view pictures of Clara Lemlich Shavelson, strikers at the Uprising of the 20,000 and the 1915 Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Students read highlighted portions of Lemlich’s biography.
- Conclude with the students seated in a circle. Discuss their answers to the questions regarding the characters of the women they learned about regarding whether they are more like Esther or Vashti.
- May show material at this time to elicit more discussion on the factory fire and need for change in working conditions (optional)
- Explain. Tell the students about more recent events in sweatshops throughout the world using material from "It Never Ends".
- Ask. “Who are you—Esther, Vashti or someone else?”
Station 1: Clara Lemlich Shavelson
Life in the Shop
Station 1: Clara Lemlich Shavelson
Life in the Shop
By Clara Lemlich
Lemlich, executive board member of Local 25, sparked the 1909 walkout of shirtwaist makers with her call for a strike. This piece was first published in the New York Evening Journal, November 28, 1909.
First let me tell you something about the way we work and what we are paid. There are two kinds of work - regular, that is salary work, and piecework. The regular work pays about $6 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7 o'clock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 o'clock at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time.
The shops. Well, there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to - that is the front row, nearest the window. The girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to work by gaslight, by day as well as by night. Oh, yes, the shops keep the work going at night, too.
The bosses in the shops are hardly what you would call educated men, and the girls to them are part of the machines they are running. They yell at the girls and they "call them down" even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South.
There are no dressing rooms for the girls in the shops. They have to hang up their hats and coats - such as they are - on hooks along the walls. Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It never is much to look at because it never costs more than 50 cents, that means that we have gone for weeks on two-cent lunches - dry cake and nothing else.
The shops are unsanitary - that's the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. Whenever we tear or damage any of the goods we sew on, or whenever it is found damaged after we are through with it, whether we have done it or not, we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of the material.
At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries. We have never been able to find out what this is for.
Leon Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy(New York: Quadrangle/New Times Book Company, 1977)
The Kheel Center would like to thank Mrs. Miriam Stein and Barbara Ismail for granting permission to use selections from the late Leon Stein's book.
Station 2: Pauline Newman
Letter to Michael and Hugh
Letter to Michael and Hugh
From Pauline M. Newman
Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P.M. Newman, typescript, May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Ithaca, NY.
Pauline Newman was born in Lithuania around 1890 and came to the United States in 1901. Soon after her arrival, she went to work to help support her family. As a young teenager, she became employed at the Triangle Factory. She was no longer employed there by the time of the fire but she wrote the following description of working conditions at this factory and speaks about why workers endured the indignities. Information on where to obtain more biographical information about Newman is at the end of this letter.
Here I am -- on board the Liberte, en route to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend a meeting of the I.L.O. (International Labor Organization). It is the month of May, 1951. My first class cabin is very comfortable and pleasant. I could not wish for better accomodations (sic). The food is excellent. The service is adequate. The flowers friends and associates sent are delightful and much appreciated. The weather, too, is all one could desire. I have settled down in my deck chair -- relaxed and content. The daily chores, the unavoidable irritations, the worry over big and little things I left behind -- for the time being, at least. Just to sit and watch the changing colors of the sea, now green, then blue and finally merge with the white of the waves -- is like a tonic to a tired body. The sky is a heavenly blue with just a few cumulus clouds. How lovely and how restful! For the moment peace and contentment replaced somber thoughts and a restless spirit. It is, I think, quite natural that I should, under these circumstances, think of you all and wish for your presence.
Thinking of you two, brought to mind the many times you asked me to tell you a story when I was with you and how I would always tell you that I am not very good at storytelling and offered to read to you instead. Now, however, I am beginning to realize that time is passing swiftly and that in the nature of things I shall not be with you much longer. One must resign to the inevitable. I am therefore, going to try and tell you a story, after all -- my own story -- a story which I hope you will, when you grow up, find interesting and informative. There is quite a gap between your life and mine. I would like to, if at all possible, that is, if I can, fill that gap.
[omitted: descriptions of her early childhood in Lithuania, coming to the United States in 1901, becoming politicized, looking for employment, working in a hairbrush factory, hand rolling cigarettes, and sewing buttons on shirtwaists. In the following passage, Newman describes getting a job at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory.]
One day a relative of mine who was employed by the now infamous Triangle Shirt Waist Co., the largest manufacturers of shirt waists in New York City, got me a job with that firm. The day I left the Jackson street shop the foreman told me that I was very lucky to have gotten a job with that concern because there is work all year...
... round and that I will no longer have to look for another job. I found later that workers were actually eager to work for this company because there was steady employment. For me this job differed in many respects from the previous ones. The Triangle Waist Co. was located at Green street and Washington Place. This was quite a distance from my home. Since the day's work began at seven thirty it meant that I had to leave home at six forty, catch the horse car -- yes, boys, there were horse cars in those days, then change for the elctric (sic) trolley at Duane and Broadway and get off at Washington Place. You will be interested to know that both rides cost only a nickel and if I remember a-right the service was much better than it is to-day when we pay fifteen ["fifteen" is crossed out and hand written above it is "20"] cents for a single ride!
The day's work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 p.m. every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. At this point it is worth recording the generocity (sic) of the Triangle Waist Co. by giving us a piece of apple pie for supper instead of additional pay! Working men and women of today who receive time and one half and at times double time for overtime will find it difficult to understand and to believe that the workers of those days were evidently willing to accept such conditions of labor without protest. However, the answer is quite simple -- we were not organized and we knew that individual protest amounted to the loss of one's job. No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs -- there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had. Therefore, we were, due to our ignorance and poverty, helpless against the power of the exploiters.
As you will note, the days were long and the wages low -- my starting wage was just one dollar and a half a week -- a long week -- consisting more often than not, of seven days. Especially was this true during the season, which in those days were longer than they are now. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating -- "if you don't come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday"! What choice did we...
... have except to look for another job on Monday morning. We did not relish the thought of walking the factory district in search of another job. And would we find a better one? We did not like it. As a matter of fact we looked forward to the one day on which we could sleep a little longer, go to the park and get to see one's friends and relatives. It was a bitter disappointment.
My job, like that of the other kids was not strenous (sic). It consisted of trimming off the threads left on the shirt waists by the operators. We were called "cleaners". Hundreds of dozens of shirt waists were carried from the machines to the "children's corner" and put into huge cases. When these were trimmed they were put in similar empty case ready for the examiners to finish the job. By the way, these cases were used for another purpose which served the employers very well indeed. You see, boys, these cases were high enough and deep enough for us kids to hide in, so that when a factory inspector came to inspect the factory he found no violation of the child labor law, because he did not see any children at work -- we were all hidden in the cases and covered with shirt waists! Clever of them, was it not? Somehow the employers seemed to have known when the inspector would come and had time enough to arrange for our hiding place.
As I said before, the job was not strenous (sic). It was tedious. Since our day began early we were often hungry for sleep. I remember a song we used to sing which began with "I would rather sleep than eat". This song was very popular at that time. But there were conditions of work which in our ignorance we so patiently tolerated such as deductions from your meager wages if and when you were five minutes late -- so often due to transportation delays; there was the constant watching you lest you pause for a moment from you work; (rubber heels had just come into use and you rarely heard the foreman or the employer sneak up behind you, watching." You were watched when you went to the lavatory and if in the opinion of the forelady you...
... stayed a minute or two longer than she thought you should have you were threatened with being fired; there was the searching of your purse or any package you happen to have lest you may have taken a bit of lace or thread. The deductions for being late was stricktly (sic) enforced because deductions even for a few minutes from several hundred people must have meant quite a sum of money. And since it was money the Triangle Waist Co. employers were after this was an easy way to get it. That these deductions meant less food for the worker's children bothered the employers not at all. If they had a conscience it apparently did not function in that direction. As I look back to those years of actual slavery I am quite certain that the conditions under which we worked and which existed in the factory of the Triangle Waist Co. were the acme of exploitation perpetrated by humans upon defenceless (sic) men women and children -- a sort of punishment for being poor and docile.
Despite these inhuman working conditions the workers -- including myself -- continued to work for this firm. What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era? There were other reasons why we did not change jobs -- call them psychological, if you will. One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established. These among other factors made us stay put, as it were.
[omitted: descriptions about learning English and studying literature with the Socialist Literary League]
One evening I was walking home from a long day's work. It was summer. But by evening the air was a bit cool and I rather liked the walk home. The sights were familiar, the usual sighns (sic) of poverty and all the resulting misery therefrom. As I saw the little children playing in the gutter, the men and women looking tired and drab, the dark and filthy tenements I thought -- dear God, will this ever be different? When I got home I sat down and wrote:
"While at work I am thinking only of my own drab existence. I get discouraged and a bit low in my mind - every day the same foreman, the same forelady, the same shirt waists, shirt waists and more shirt waists. The same machines, the same surroundings. The day is long and the task tiresome. In despair I ask -- "dear God will it ever be different?". And on my way home from work I see again those lonely men and women with hopeless faces, tired eyes; harrased (sic) by want and worry -- I again ask "will it ever be different?". I wrote more of the same and when it was done I decided to send it to the Forward. Of course I did not expect it to be accepted or published. I did not think it was good enough for publication. I was not a writer and I knew it. But, I did want to express my feelings and get them down on paper. There was satisfaction in doing just that. I posted the article and did not give it another thought.
A few days later, it was a Saturday, as I was approaching the Triangle factory I noticed a number of my fellow workers holding the Forward and pointing to something, and when they saw me they all shouted congratulation and hailed me as a conquering hero -- for my piece was published! I could hardly believe it! but there it was, my name and all. This I believe was one of the highlights in my life. Perhaps a minor one compared with what was to follow in the years ahead. However, at the time it was an achievement I did not anticipate. Encouraged by the success of my first attempt to give expression to my thoughts and feelings I tried again and again and each time my articles and stories were accepted and published. I became "famous" almost over night. In a small way I became the voice of the less articulate young men and women with whom I worked and with whom later I was to join in the fight for improved working conditions and a better life for us all.
[In the rest of this paper, Newman wrote at length about getting involved in the 1909 Shirtwaist Makers Strike. By the time of the 1911 Triangle Fire, she had moved on to a new role as organizer and activist in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, sparing her the horrors of the fire. She became ILGWU's first full-time woman organizer, spoke at the 1909 Shirtwaist Makers Strike, and went on to become an organizer for the union in the northeast and midwest. In this position, she played a role in numerous major strikes. She founded the ILGWU's Health Center and was Director of Health Education, 1918-1980. Newman's other positions over the years included Advisor to the United States Department of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s, member of the Board of Directors for the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, and she served with the Women's Trade Union League. In short, she led a long, productive life working to provide a positive answer to her question, "Will it ever be different?"]
Station 3: Rose Schneiderman
Optional Material for Discussion
141 Men and Girls Die in Wait Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building: Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside
New York Times, March 26, 1911, p. 1.
Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned yesterday, and while the fire was going on 141 young men and women at least 125 of them mere girls were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.
The building was fireproof. It shows now hardly any signs of the disaster that overtook it. The walls are as good as ever so are the floors, nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories.
Most of the victims were suffocated or burned to death within the building, but some who fought their way to the windows and leaped met death as surely, but perhaps more quickly, on the pavements below.
All Over in Half an Hour
Nothing like it has been seen in New York since the burning of the General Slocum. The fire was practically all over in half an hour. It was confined to three floors the eighth, ninth, and tenth of the building. But it was the most murderous fire that New York had seen in many years.
The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaist by the Triangle Waist Company, the principal owners of which are Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.
There is just one fire escape in the building. That one is an interior fire escape. In Greene Street, where the terrified unfortunates crowded before they began to make their mad leaps to death, the whole big front of the building is guiltless of one. Nor is there a fire escape in the back.
The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned.
A heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour. The firemen were too busy dealing with the fire to pay any attention to people whom they supposed beyond their aid. When the excitement had subsided to such an extent that some of the firemen and policemen could pay attention to this mass of the supposedly dead they found about half way down in the pack a girl who was still breathing. She died two minutes after she was found.
The Triangle Waist Company was the only sufferer by the disaster. There are other concerns in the building, but it was Saturday and the other companies had let their people go home. Messrs. Harris and Blanck, however, were busy and ?? their girls and some stayed.
Leaped Out of the Flames
At 4:40 o'clock, nearly five hours after the employes in the rest of the building had gone home, the fire broke out. The one little fire escape in the interior was resorted to by any of the doomed victims. Some of them escaped by running down the stairs, but in a moment or two this avenue was cut off by flame. The girls rushed to the windows and looked down at Greene Street, 100 feet below them. Then one poor, little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces.
Then they all began to drop. The crowd yelled "Don't jump!" but it was jump or be burned the proof of which is found in the fact that fifty burned bodies were taken from the ninth floor alone.
They jumped, the crashed through broken glass, they crushed themselves to death on the sidewalk. Of those who stayed behind it is better to say nothing except what a veteran policeman said as he gazed at a headless and charred trunk on the Greene Street sidewalk hours after the worst cases had been taken out:
"I saw the Slocum disaster, but it was nothing to this." "Is it a man or a woman?" asked the reporter. "It's human, that's all you can tell," answered the policeman.
It was just a mass of ashes, with blood congealed on what had probably been the neck.
Messrs. Harris and Blanck were in the building, but the escaped. They carried with the Mr. Blanck's children and a governess, and they fled over the roofs. Their employes did not know the way, because they had been in the habit of using the two freight elevators, and one of these elevators was not in service when the fire broke out.
Found Alive After the Fire
The first living victims, Hyman Meshel of 322 East Fifteenth Street, was taken from the ruins four hours after the fire was discovered. He was found paralyzed with fear and whimpering like a wounded animal in the basement, immersed in water to his neck, crouched on the top of a cable drum and with his head just below the floor of the elevator.
Meantime the remains of the dead it is hardly possible to call them bodies, because that would suggest something human, and there was nothing human about most of these were being taken in a steady stream to the Morgue for identification. First Avenue was lined with the usual curious east side crowd. Twenty-sixth Street was impassable. But in the Morgue they received the charred remnants with no more emotion than they ever display over anything.
Back in Greene Street there was another crowd. At midnight it had not decreased in the least. The police were holding it back to the fire lines, and discussing the tragedy in a tone which those seasoned witnesses of death seldom use.
"It's the worst thing I ever saw," said one old policeman.
Chief Croker said it was an outrage. He spoke bitterly of the way in which the Manufacturers' Association had called a meeting in Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employes in cases of fire.
No Chance to Save Victims
Four alarms were rung in fifteen minutes. The first five girls who jumped did go before the first engine could respond. That fact may not convey much of a picture to the mind of an unimaginative man, but anybody who has ever seen a fire can get from it some idea of the terrific rapidity with which the flames spread.
It may convey some idea too, to say that thirty bodies clogged the elevator shaft. These dead were all girls. They had made their rush their blindly when they discovered that there was no chance to get out by the fire escape. Then they found that the elevator was as hopeless as anything else, and they fell there in their tracks and died.
The Triangle Waist Company employed about 600 women and less than 100 men. One of the saddest features of the thing is the fact that they had almost finished for the day. In five minutes more, if the fire had started then, probably not a life would have been lost.
Last night District Attorney Whitman started an investigation not of this disaster alone but of the whole condition which makes it possible for a firetrap of such a kind to exist. Mr. Whitman's intention is to find out if the present laws cover such cases, and if they do not to frame laws that will.
Girls Jump To Sure Death
Fire Nets Prove Useless Firemen Helpless to Save Life. The fire which was first discovered at 4:40 o'clock on the eighth floor of the ten-story building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, leaped through the three upper stories occupied by the Triangle Waist Company with a sudden rush that left the Fire Department helpless.
How the fire started no one knows. On the three upper floors of the building were 600 employes of the waist company, 500 of whom were girls. The victims mostly Italians, Russians, Hungarians, and Germans were girls and men who had been employed by the firm of Harris & Blanck, owners of the Triangle Waist Company, after the strike in which the Jewish girls, formerly employed, had been become unionized and had demanded better working conditions. The building had experienced four recent fires and had been reported by the Fire Department to the Building Department as unsafe in account of the insufficiency of its exits.
The building itself was of the most modern construction and classed as fireproof. What burned so quickly and disastrously for the victims were shirtwaists, hanging on lines above tiers of workers, sewing machines placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them, and shirtwaist trimmings and cuttings which littered the floors above the eighth and ninth stories.
Girls had begun leaping from the eighth story windows before firemen arrived. The firemen had trouble bringing their apparatus into position because of the bodies which strewed the pavement and sidewalks. While more bodies crashed down among them, they worked with desperation to run their ladders into position and to spread firenets.
One fireman running ahead of a hose wagon, which halted to avoid running over a body spread a firenet, and two more seized hold of it. A girl's body, coming end over end, struck on the side of it, and there was hope that she would be the first one of the score who had jumped to be saved.
Thousands of people who had crushed in from Broadway and Washington Square and were screaming with horror at what they saw watched closely the work with the firenet. Three other girls who had leaped for it a moment after the first one, struck it on top of her, and all four rolled out and lay still upon the pavement.
Five girls who stood together at a window close the Greene Street corner held their place while a fire ladder was worked toward them, but which stopped at its full length two stories lower down. They leaped together, clinging to each other, with fire streaming back from their hair and dresses. They struck a glass sidewalk cover and it to the basement. There was no time to aid them. With water pouring in upon them from a dozen hose nozzles the bodies lay for two hours where they struck, as did the many others who leaped to their deaths.
One girl, who waved a handkerchief at the crowd, leaped from a window adjoining the New York University Building on the westward. Her dress caught on a wire, and the crowd watched her hang there till her dress burned free and she came toppling down.
Many jumped whom the firemen believe they could have saved. A girl who saw the glass roof of a sidewalk cover at the first-story level of the New York University Building leaped for it, and her body crashed through to the sidewalk.
On Greene Street, running along the eastern face of the building more people leaped to the pavement than on Washington Place to the south. Fire nets proved just as useless to catch them and the ladders to reach them. None waited for the firemen to attempt to reach them with the scaling ladders.
All Would Soon Have Been Out
Strewn about as the firemen worked, the bodies indicated clearly the preponderance of women workers. Here and there was a man, but almost always they were women. One wore furs and a muss, and had a purse hanging from her arm. Nearly all were dressed for the street. The fire had flashed through their workroom just as they were expecting the signal to leave the building. In ten minutes more all would have been out, as many had stopped work in advance of the signal and had started to put on their wraps.
What happened inside there were few who could tell with any definiteness. All that those escaped seemed to remember was that there was a flash of flames, leaping first among the girls in the southeast corner of the eighth floor and then suddenly over the entire room, spreading through the linens and cottons with which the girls were working. The girls on the ninth floor caught sight of the flames through the window up the stairway, and up the elevator shaft.
On the tenth floor they got them a moment later, but most of those on that floor escaped by rushing to the roof and then on to the roof of the New York University Building, with the assistance of 100 university students who had been dismissed from a tenth story classroom.
There were in the building, according to the estimate of Fire Chief Croker, about 600 girls and 100 men.
“It Never Ends”
Bethany, Conn. - NINETY-FIVE years ago, March 25 also fell on a Saturday. At 4:40 p.m. on that sunny afternoon in 1911, only minutes before the end of the workday, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building, a block east of Washington Square in Manhattan.
The Triangle Waist Company occupied the top three floors of the 10-story building. There, some 600 workers were employed in the manufacture of ladies' shirtwaists, most of them teenage girls who spoke little English and were fresh off the boat from Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. The fire, probably caused by a carelessly tossed match or cigarette butt (there were perhaps 100 men working at the Triangle), engulfed the premises in minutes.
The factory owners and the office staff on the 10th floor, all but one, escaped onto the roof and climbed to an adjacent building on Waverly Place. But on the eighth and ninth floors, the workers were trapped by a deadly combination of highly combustible materials, workrooms crowded by dense rows of table-mounted sewing machines, doors that were locked or opened inward, inadequate fire escapes, and the lack of any plan or instruction.
Before the first horse-drawn fire engines arrived at the scene, girls -- some holding hands, in twos and threes -- had already begun to jump from the windows. The hundred-foot drop to the cobbled street was not survivable. The firemen deployed their nets, but the force of gravity drove the bodies of the girls straight through to the pavement, and they died on impact.
The ladders on the fire trucks were raised quickly, but the New York City Fire Department of 1911 was not equipped to combat fires above six stories -- the limit of those ladders. The top floors of the Asch Building, a neo-Renaissance "fireproof" warehouse completed in 1901 in full compliance with building codes, burned relentlessly.
The workers trapped near the windows on the eighth and ninth floors made the fast and probably instinctive choice to jump instead of burning or suffocating in the smoke. The corpses of the jumpers, by some estimates as many as 70, could at least be identified. But the bodies of most of those who died inside the Triangle Waist Company -- trapped by the machinery, piled up on the wrong side of doors, heaped in the stairwells and elevator shafts -- were hideously charred, many beyond recognition.
Before 15 minutes had elapsed, some 140 workers had burned, fallen from the collapsing fire escapes, or jumped to their deaths. Several more, critically injured, died in the days that followed, putting the official death toll at 146.
But what happened to the children who were working at the Triangle Waist Company that afternoon?
By most contemporary accounts, it was common knowledge that children were usually on the premises. They were hidden from the occasional inspectors, but underage girls, as young as 9 or 10, worked in most New York garment factories, sewing buttons and trimming threads. Where were they on this particular Saturday afternoon?
There are no descriptions of children surviving the fire. Various lists of those who died 95 years ago today -- 140 named victims plus six who were never identified (were some of those charred remains children?) -- include one 11-year-old, two 14-year-olds, three 15-year-olds, 16 16- year-olds, and 14 17-year-olds. Were the ages of workers, living and dead, modified to finesse the habitual violation of child labor laws in 1911? How many children actually died that day? We will never know. And now 1911 is almost beyond living memory.
But we will also never know how many children were among the dead on May 10, 1993, in Thailand when the factory of the Kader Industrial Toy Company (a supplier to Hasbro and Fisher-Price) went up in flames. Most of the 188 workers who died were described as teenage girls.
We will never know with any certainty how many children died on Nov. 25, 2000, in a fire at the Chowdhury Knitwear and Garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh (most of the garments made in Bangladesh are contracted by American retailers, including Wal-Mart and the Gap), where at least 10 of the 52 trapped in the flames by locked doors and windows were 10 to 14 years old.
And we will never know how many children died just last month, on Feb. 23, in the KTS Composite Textile factory fire in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The official death toll has climbed into the 50's, but other sources report that at least 84 workers lost their lives. It's a familiar story: crowded and unsafe conditions, locked exits, hundreds of undocumented female workers as young as 12, a deadly fire. There may never be another tragic factory fire in America that takes the lives of children. We don't lock them into sweatshops any more. There are child labor laws, fire codes.
But as long as we don't question the source of the inexpensive clothing we wear, as long as we don't wonder about the children in those third world factories who make the inexpensive toys we buy for our own children, those fires will occur and young girls and boys will continue to die. They won't die because of natural catastrophes like monsoons and earthquakes; they will die because it has become our national habit to outsource, and these days we outsource our tragedies, too.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Allyson Mattanah." (Viewed on October 15, 2019) <https://jwa.org/twersky/allyson-mattanah>.