Some of the workers had already put on their hats when the alarm went off. A half hour later, the fire was mostly out but 146 people were dead. Most were women, many were teens, and almost all of them were Jewish or Italian immigrants. More than 50 burned to death on the factory floor, 19 fell into the elevator shaft, at least 20 died when the fire escape detached from the building’s wall, and 53 fell–or jumped–from windows.
The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory happened a hundred years ago this week, March 25 1911. It brought dramatic attention to working conditions in American factories, and in fact Triangle had been a focus of unionizing efforts, but its owners prevailed. “Only” 146 died, but their easily preventable deaths had far-reaching consequences. Consider this: About 100,000 turned out earlier this month to protest Scott Walker’s union-busting scheme in Wisconsin. 400,000 turned out for the memorial service for the Triangle fire victims, who died in part because they could not unionize.
The moment provides the central image for my favorite Robert Pinsky poem, a poem where his rhythmic skill and his eloquent, civic humanity are on full display. -ed.
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians
Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band
Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze
At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—
The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out
Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.
A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once
He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—
Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked
Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans
Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,
Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,
The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:
George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit
And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,
The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.