Monday, March 21, 2011

"Piecing it Together" and the Impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on Immigrant Life: An Educator's Perspective

I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire growing up in Tennessee. Maybe it wasn’t taught at my school. Maybe I tuned out during that unit.

I’m even more embarrassed to admit that, despite 4 years in college as a history major, it was not until I became an educator at the Tenement Museum that I had more than a superficial understanding of what had happened at 19 Washington Place on March 25, 1911. Since I first began working with the Museum, virtually every "Piecing It Together" tour I lead has begun with a visitor asking, “Are you going to talk about the fire? The Triangle fire?”

I have been at the museum now for almost two years, yet I still marvel at how many of our visitors know about the fire - parents, kids, teachers – and not just those from New York. They know about the locked doors. They know about the fire as a watershed moment in this country’s movement towards labor regulations and the support of unions.

And now the answer to the question is of course, “Yes. I will be talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.”

New York Evening Journal headline from March 28, 1911
Courtesy Kheel Center at Cornell University

In keeping with the countless articles, television specials on PBS and HBO, and hundreds of events around the country commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fire, educators at the museum present the tragedy within the historical and political context of the labor movement.  We also draw connections between this history and the precarious position of unions today as evidenced by the recent events in Wisconsin.

What I think the museum does best, however, is to paint a picture of how the fire and its aftermath was experienced by the people living within the community and who were most impacted by the tragedy. We do this by examining the fire from the perspective of the Rogarshevsky family, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family that arrived in the United States in 1901. The Rogarshevskys moved into 97 Orchard Street by 1910, and by the time of the fire in 1911, at least three family members were working in the garment industry: Abraham, the father, at a small tenement sweatshop in the neighborhood, and Ida and Bessie, the two daughters, at a big factory like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory further up town.

Rogarshevsky Parlor
Photo by Tenement Museum
We imagine how the mother, Fannie, must have felt when word of the fire reached the neighborhood. Perhaps initially without the name of the specific factory, Fannie feared the worst for her two daughters.

We look at the front page of the Jewish Daily Forward from Sunday, March 26, 1911, the day after the fire. The headline reads, “The Morgue is Filled With Our Sacrifices” – OUR sacrifices, the sacrifices of an entire community. Together, visitors imagine the eight members of the Rogarshevsky family poring over the paper together, looking for names of friends and neighbors in the preliminary list of victims.

Perhaps Abraham, the most religiously observant of the family, looked up from the paper and announced to his family that it was not a mere coincidence that the fire broke out on a Saturday, the holiest day of the week within the Jewish tradition. Perhaps he viewed the fire as a punishment for those Jews breaking their commandment with God by working on the Sabbath.

Did his children share his view or did they voice opposing opinions over the parlor table? Maybe they reminded him that the majority of factories were dark on Sundays, so that despite the imposition on religious traditions (and despite the unsafe and unhygienic conditions, the low pay and poor treatment, and the exploitation by foremen and bosses), immigrants like themselves had no choice but to work Monday through Saturday, regardless of the Commandments.

For me, this kind of approach breathes life into an event that has become synonymous with immigrant issues, women’s issues, workers’ issues, and resonates primarily on a political level. It illuminates the personal at the heart of the political.

Posted by Clare Burson

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