Tag Archives: Triangle Factory Fire

Where They Lived: Remembering the victims of The Triangle Factory Fire

On this day in 1911, late in the afternoon, fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the upper floors of a ten-story building near Washington Square Park. Due to odious practices by the factory’s supervisors, the doorways were blocked and the fire escapes were in poor shape.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

Hundreds of employees, mostly young immigrant women, scrambled to escape by any means necessary.

When the fire was finally extinguished, 146 workers had been killed in the blaze. Many, fearing death by the flames, leaped to the street below to the horror of onlookers who had stumbled over from the park.

Library of Congress/Bain Collection
Library of Congress/Bain Collection

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is one of the most horrible tragedies in American history, both an indictment on New York sweatshop industries and the lack of any oversight about safety in high rise buildings.  Many building regulations that keep us safe today were directly put in place due to these events.

From the New York Tribune the following day:

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But on this anniversary I wanted to focus on the people who died at the Triangle Factory that day. Can we imagine something about them by looking at where they lived?

Thanks to the research of Michael Hirsch and the Kheel Center at Cornell University [found here], it’s possible to actually come up with a map of the homes of all 146 victims of the Triangle fire. It would look something like the map below. Just zoom into it to look at the individual sites and take a look at which neighborhoods and boroughs that were most affected:

NOTE: The addresses are accurate, but a few of the points are approximately placed. In a few cases, the streets no longer exist, so I placed the points in close vicinity.

To nobody’s surprise, the neighborhood most devastated by the tragedy is the Lower East Side (The east side above Houston Street — i.e. today’s East Village — didn’t take that new designation until the late 1950s.) There doesn’t seem to be a block in the neighborhood with an empty home that day one hundred years ago.

A few years before the Triangle fire, the Lower East Side had experienced an even more ghastly tragedy — the explosion of the General Slocum paddle steamer on June 15, 1904. Among the 1,021 victims of that horrific event, most lived in this neighborhood and specifically in the German area of Kleindeutschland. As the victims were mostly women and children, the disaster effectively marked the end of the German enclave here. New York wouldn’t see such a large loss of life until September 11, 2001. [There’s a Bowery Boys podcast on this subject, recorded on its 110th anniversary.]

The deaths of the 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911, did not produce the same effect to the neighborhood, but certainly the loss was gravely felt in tenements and houses throughout the city. The map shows that the disaster’s immediate impact reverberated even into the other boroughs.

Essex Street  in 1905. “You feel lonely. How would you like to live here?”

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

East vs. West
Of the 146, most all of them were born in three countries — Italy, Russia or Austria. A handful were born in the United States, presumably the children of first generation immigrants. So it’s no surprise most of them found homes in the Lower East Side, still the heart of immigrant life in the early 20th century. But I really didn’t expect it to be so decisive. Outside of a small cluster of people who lived in Greenwich Village close to the factory, there were no victims who listed addresses anywhere on Manhattan’s west side — not in Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or anywhere else.

Below: In front of 110-118 East 86th Street in July 1916

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

Yorkville and Beyond
I’m fascinated by those who lived further out, near the growing German neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for instance. A great many took streetcars and elevated trains into work from Brooklyn and the Bronx, and some might even have taken advantage of the new subway (although in 1911, its route was very limited). No surprise that none of them lived in Queens; the ethnic neighborhoods of that borough would really flourish after the 1920s.

And then there’s young Vincenza Billota, a 16 year old girl who lived out with her uncle in Hoboken, NJ — the only one of the victims to commute into the city. Her uncle came in from New Jersey that night to identify Vincenza who burned alive inside the factory. He identified her because her shoes had recently been repaired; he recognized the cobbler’s work.

From 1909, the caption reads “Tenement dwellers dropping clothes from fire escape for Italians on East side.”

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Missing Tenements

There’s something moving about finding and identifying the homes of the victims. Most of these people had no solid roots, no property they owned. Only an address, a home they most likely shared with family members and other tenants. Every year on the anniversary of the fire, the sidewalks outside these addresses are marked with chalk, the names and ages written on the ground as a yearly reminder. You can look at a photo array from the 2011 chalk excursions here.

They didn’t live in fabulous Beaux-Arts mansions or apartment buildings. Their homes were tenements, most overcrowded and poorly maintained. Thus, many of the actual buildings themselves are gone. In the cases of the victim’s homes on Monroe Street, even most of the street itself is gone, replaced with more modern housing projects.

At left, 135 Cherry Street, the home of fire victim Rose Cirrito. The photo is from 1939 (courtesy NYPL); the entire row of buildings was later demolished.

1

509 East 13th Street was the home to two Italian girls, Antonietta Pasqualicchio and Annie L’Abate, and an older Italian woman Annina Ardito, who all lost their lives that day. But that building has been replaced with a modern apartment.

Family and Friends
To grasp a disaster of this magnitude — at a vantage over one century later — you have to deal with it in generalities. The victims were mostly girls, mostly immigrants, mostly uneducated. However, by singling out a particular address, the individual tragedies come into focus. And oddly, you get to place that person’s life next to what inhabits that address today. In the case of the Lower East Side, some of these places are now restaurants, bars and luxury condos.

143 Essex Street was the home of two victims — two teenage brothers Max and Sam Lehrer from Austria. Both had arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1909; another Austrian, Sigmund Freud, also arrived at Ellis Island that year.

Young Jennie Stellino had lived in New York since she was 12 years old; she died in the blaze at age 16. She walked to the factory every day from her home at 315 Bowery, one of the few with a fairly easy commute. Jennie survived the blaze but died from her burns three days later. Decades later, the building at that address became internationally renown for the tenant at its ground floor, CBGB’s.

I’m not sure there’s even a 35 Second Avenue anymore. The street is inhabited by a diner and a few bars today; the Anthology Film Archives sits across the street. But it was the home to three women who lost their lives that day — Catherine Maltese and her two daughters.

________________________________________________________

For more information on on the Triangle Factory Fire,  you can listen to the Bowery Boys show from  April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.
Or you can play it here:

 —–
There’s a memorial today at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, with flowers on the sidewalk for every person who perished in the fire.
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The display has an eerie parallel to one of the more disturbing images from the fire.
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This is an expanded version of an article which ran on this blog on the 100th anniversary of this Triangle Factory Fire.
Picture at top: The Lower East Side in 1913, from the rooftop of the Consolidated Gas Building (4 Irving Place), cleaned up version of public domain image courtesy Shorpy

At The Ready: The History of the New York City Fire Department


The distinguished members of New York’s various volunteer fire brigades, posing for the photographer Matthew Brady in 1858

PODCAST  The New York City Fire Department (or FDNY) protects the five boroughs from a host of disasters and mishaps — five-alarm blazes, a kitchen fire run amok, rescue operations and even those dastardly midtown elevators, always getting stuck!  But today’s tightly organized team is a far cry from the chaos and machismo that defined New York’s fire apparatus many decades ago.

New York’s early firefighters — Peter Stuyvesant‘s original ratel-watch — were all-purpose guardians, from police work to town timepieces.  Volunteer forces assembled in the 18th century just as innovative new engines arrived from London.

By the 19th century, the fire department was the ultimate boys club, with gangs of rival firefighters, with their own volunteer ‘runners’, raced to fires as though in a sports competition.  Fisticuffs regularly erupted.  From this tradition came Boss Tweed, whose corrupt political ways would forever change New York’s fire services — for better and for worse.

Volunteers were replaced by an official paid division by 1865.  Now using horse power and new technologies, the department fought against the extraordinary challenges of skyscraper and factory fires.  There were internal battles as well as the department struggled to become more inclusive within its ranks.

But the greatest test lay in the modern era — from a deteriorating infrastructure in the 1970s that left many areas of New York unguarded, and then, the new menace of modern terrorism that continues to test the skill of the FDNY.  From burning chimneys in New Amsterdam to the tragedy of 9/11, this is the story of how they earned the nickname New York’s Bravest.

Above:  That’s Harry Howard, one of the FDNY’s greatest firemen and a former member of the Bowery Boys volunteer fire unit!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #161 Fire Department of New York (FDNY)

_________________________________________________________________________

And we would like to again thank our sponsor Squarespace!

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A poster by Vera Bock from 1936, created for a series by the Federal Art Project, touts the contributions of Peter Stuyvesant to the history of New York firefighting. (LOC)

One of two fire engines first received by New York in 1733 (from an 1872 illustration) Courtesy NYPL

A firefighters’ procession at night, marching past Niblo’s Garden. 1858   Courtesy NYPL

Eagle insignia from a New York fire truck, 19th century, courtesy the US National Archives

The first official fire boat of the FDNY (although others had been rented before this), named for former mayor William F. Havemeyer.

Volunteer fire divisions were slowly fazed out after the introduction of an official paid company.  This was expanded when the five boroughs were created in 1898.  This postcard commemorates the final run of a volunteer fire department in West Brighton, Staten Island. (NYPL)

Firefighters battled a tenement blaze in this illustration from 1899, one of thousands that occurred in the poorer districts of town.  Improved fire regulations would ensure newer buildings were more fire proof. (Courtesy NYPL)

One of New York’s more interesting firehouses — the one for fireboats at the Battery. Photo by Berenice Abbott (courtesy NYPL)

Horses were a hotly contested inclusion to the fire departments during the 19th century.  They were eventually banished during the volunteer years, but re-introduced after 1870 and soon became essential for getting quickly to fires.

Hook and Ladder Co. No. 8, from 1887

Motorized fire engines and trucks replaced the horse-drawn varieties in the 1910s.  Here’s one model that was used by the FDNY in 1913 (Courtesy Shorpy)

The city’s growth created new challenges for the FDNY.  With the new subway, there was the potential for dangerous fires underground.  Here a team of firefighters battle a subway fire in midtown in 1915, and a couple firemen who braved the inferno underfoot. (LOC)

The difficult blaze at the Equitable Building in 1912 produced a bizarre aftermath of icy ruins.

Firefighters rescuing people (and paintings!) from a fire at the Museum of Modern Art, 1958. (Courtesy Life)

A sorrowful day:  Thousands come out to mourn the 12 firefighters who died fighting a terrible blaze that erupted across from the Flatiron Building on October 21, 1966. (Picture courtesy FDNY)

Total mayhem erupted in New York City in the 1970s, as whole districts like the South Bronx, Bushwick, Harlem and the Lower East Side saw a massive increase of fire-related disasters due to the city’s financial woes. (Photo courtesy New York Post/Vernon Shibla photographer)

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters and FDNY paramedics died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  But the force, along with the police and other emergency workers, managed to save tens of thousands of people on that day, making one of the largest rescue operations in American history.  In total, 2,977 people were killed that day, 2,606 of them in New York, on the ground and in the towers.

And finally, a rather amazing film documenting the fire department’s emergency response process in 1926, with a breathless dash-cam vantage point!

With the state capitol on fire, a wealth of history lost

This is not New York City related, but it pertains to the state capital. New Yorkers woke up this morning 100 years ago to see the haunting portrait above in the morning papers. The state capitol building in Albany , completed just 12 years before, caught fire on the evening of March 29, 1911, destroying most of the state library and killing one man. Many documents from the early days of New York history — from the founding of New Amsterdam and the early colonization of the region — were destroyed.

Images like the one above momentarily pushed aside stories and images from Triangle Factory Fire, which had just happened a few days previous.

For more images from the New York state archives, take a look here.

Where they lived: Victims of the Triangle Factory Fire, the homes they left behind, a hundred years later


Lonely tenement on Avenue C and 13th Street, near many homes of the Triangle Fire victims. photo by Percy Loomis Sperr [NYPL]

From cable television to museums and campuses all over the city, you’ve been able to find a host of remembrances of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory one hundred years ago. At the bottom of this post, I’ll reprint my list from a couple weeks ago (with a couple new additions) outlining some easy ways to learn about the history.

I wanted to focus on something a little different. Thanks to the research of Michael Hirsch and the Kheel Center at Cornell University [found here], it’s possible to actually come up with a map of the homes of all 146 victims of the Triangle fire. It would look something like the map below. Just zoom into it to look at the individual sites and take a gander at which neighborhoods and boroughs that were most affected:

NOTE: The addresses are accurate, but a few of the points are approximately placed. In a few cases, the streets no longer exist, so I placed the points in close vicinity.

To nobody’s surprise, the neighborhood most devastated by the tragedy is the Lower East Side (The east side above Houston Street — i.e. today’s East Village — didn’t take that new designation until the 1960s.) There doesn’t seem to be a block in the neighborhood with an empty home that day one hundred years ago.

A few years before the Triangle fire, the Lower East Side has experienced an even more ghastly tragedy — the explosion of the General Slocum paddle steamer on June 15, 1904. Among the 1,021 victims of that horrific event, most lived in this neighborhood and specifically in the German area of Kleindeutschland. As the victims were mostly women and children, the disaster effectively marked the end of the German enclave here. New York wouldn’t see such a large loss of life until September 11, 2001.

The deaths of the 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911, did not produce the same effect to the neighborhood, but certainly the loss was gravely felt in tenements and houses throughout the city. The map shows that the disaster’s immediate impact reverberated even into the other boroughs.

East vs. West
Of the 146, most all of them were born in three countries — Italy, Russia or Austria. A handful were born in the United States, presumably the children of first generation immigrants. So its no surprise most of them found homes in the Lower East Side, still the heart of immigrant life in the early 20th century. But I really didn’t expect it to be so decisive. Outside of a small cluster of people who lived in Greenwich Village close to the factory, there were no victims who listed addresses anywhere on Manhattan’s west side — not in Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or anywhere else.

Yorkville and Beyond
I’m fascinated by those who lived further out, near the growing immigrant village of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for instance. A great many took streetcars and elevated trains into work from Brooklyn and the Bronx, and some might even have taken advantage of the new subway (although in 1911, its route was very limited). No surprise that none of them lived in Queens; the ethnic neighborhoods of that borough would really flourish after the 1920s.

And then there’s young Vincenza Billota, a 16 year old girl who lived out with her uncle in Hoboken, NJ — the only one of the victims to commute into the city. Her uncle came in from New Jersey that night to identify Vincenza who burned alive inside the factory. He identified her because her shoes had recently been repaired; he recognized the cobbler’s work.

Missing TenementsThere’s something moving about finding and identifying the homes of the victims. Most of these people had no solid roots, no property they owned. Only an address, a home they most likely shared with family members and other tenants. Every year the sidewalks outside these addresses are marked with chalk, the names and ages written on the ground as a yearly reminder. You can look at a photo array from the most recent chalk excursions here.

They didn’t live in fabulous Beaux-Arts mansions or apartment buildings. Their homes were tenements, most overcrowded and poorly maintained. Thus, many of the actual buildings themselves are gone. In the cases of the victim’s homes on Monroe Street, even most of the street itself is gone, replaced with more modern housing projects. At left, 135 Cherry Street, the home of fire victim Rose Cirrito. The photo is from 1939 (courtesy NYPL); the entire row of buildings was later demolished.

509 East 13th Street was the home to two Italian girls, Antonietta Pasqualicchio and Annie L’Abate, and an older Italian woman Annina Ardito, who all lost their lives that day. But that building has been replaced with a most modern apartment.

Family and Friends
To grasp a disaster of this magnitude — at a vantage one century later — you have to deal with it in generalities. The victims were mostly girls, mostly immigrants, mostly uneducated. However, by singling out a particular address, the individual tragedies come into focus. And oddly, you get to place that person’s life next to what inhabits that address today. In the case of the Lower East Side, some of these places are now restaurants, bars and luxury condos.

143 Essex Street was the home of two victims — two teenage brothers Max and Sam Lehrer from Austria. Both had arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1909; another Austrian, Sigmund Freud, also arrived at Ellis Island that year. Last year, that building itself caught on fire.

Young Jennie Stellino had lived in New York since she was 12 years old; she died in the blaze at age 16. She walked to the factory every day from her home at 315 Bowery, one of the few with a fairly easy commute. Jennie survived the blaze but died from her burns three days later. Decades later, the building at that address became internationally renown for the tenant at its ground floor, CBGB’s.

I’m not sure there’s even a 35 Second Avenue anymore. The street is inhabited by a diner and a few bars today; the Anthology Film Archives sits across the street. But it was the home to three women who lost their lives that day — Catherine Maltese and her two daughters.
________________________________________________________

There are several events lined up for this evening and throughout the weekend. You can find the whole lineup at the website Remember The Triangle Fire.

Here’s some ways to get yourself caught up on the facts of the event, in time for memorial ceremonies on March 25:
TV: PBS will be airing its one-hour American Experience ‘Triangle Fire’, while HBO has its own documentary Remembering The Fire. Check your local listings, as both should be rerunning over the next couple days.
Press: Lots of articles will be generated about the fire, but I recommend you start with the excellent coverage by the New York Times, including a story last week about researcher Michael Hirsch and his quest to identify the last six remaining victims of the fire whose names until now had been unknown. [New York Times]
Books: There are several books in print, both non-fiction and narrative retelling, but the one I can most passionately recommend is Dave Von Drehle‘s ‘Triangle’ The Fire That Changed America‘, focusing on some of the early voices for worker’s rights and unrest prior to the tragedy. And Von Drehle’s depiction of the fire itself is both methodical and heartbreaking.

Websites: The School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University has organized an extraordinary repository of information about the event and the aftermath, including a huge collection of photographs and audio interviews from some of the survivors. [Remember The Triangle Factory Fire]

Podcast: And finally, I recorded a podcast on the Triangle Factory Fire back in April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Some basic information


Mourners filled the streets of New York on April 5th, 1911 , in honor of the victims of the Triangle Factory Fire. This March, modern New Yorkers will get their turn to commemorate the tragedy.

Next month is the 100th anniversary of one of the most horrific tragedies in New York City history — the workplace fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory east of Washington Square. The swift and destructive blaze killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911, the greatest loss of life in a New York workplace until the attack on the World Trade Center.

What will certainly add poignancy to the conservation, given recent headlines, is the tragedy’s importance in the growth of worker’s unions and the improvement of workplace conditions and building codes.

Here’s some ways to get yourself caught up on the facts of the event, in time for memorial ceremonies on March 25:
TV: Tonight on PBS is the debut of the one-hour American Experience ‘Triangle Fire’, giving a dramatic narrated recount of events. Check your local listings, but this will undoubtedly be repeated throughout the month.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

Press: Lots of articles will be generated about the fire, but I recommend you start with the New York Times story last week about researcher Michael Hirsch and his quest to identify the last six remaining victims of the fire whose names until now had been unknown. [New York Times]
Books: There are several books in print, both non-fiction and narrative retelling, but the one I can most passionately recommend is Dave Von Drehle‘s ‘Triangle’ The Fire That Changed America‘, focusing on some of the early voices for worker’s rights and unrest prior to the tragedy. And Von Drehle’s depiction of the fire itself is both methodical and heartbreaking.

Websites: The School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University has organized an extraordinary repository of information about the event and the aftermath, including a huge collection of photographs and audio interviews from some of the survivors. Remember The Triangle Factory Fire]

Podcast: And finally, I recorded a podcast on the Triangle Factory Fire back in April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. I’ve always been particularly proud of this one. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.

Mark those calendars! Big New York anniversaries in 2011


The New York Public Library main branch building in 1911. If you’ll notice, the lions are not on their pedestals. (Courtesy NYPL)

With the ringing in of another new year comes a new list of institutions, events and accomplishments marking significant milestones this year.

400 Years Ago
Hendrick Christiaensen visits Mannahatta 1611
Who, you ask? Sure, nobody forgets Henry Hudson’s voyage to the unexplored river that would soon bear his name or his fateful adventures along the lands that would one day become Staten Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan. But what about the second great adventurer to the region, the Dutch explorer Hendrick Christiaensen, who made his first visit to the future New York harbor in 1611, verifying Hudson’s first exploits. He would return later that year with fellow explorer, Adriaen Block. Block’s explorations in the following years would officially stake the Netherlands’ claims to the region.

Hudson, by the way, was last seen 400 years ago this year, set adrift by a mutinous crew. (More about this in our podcast on Henry Hudson.)

350 Years Ago
Staten Island’s oldest town founded 1661
A big anniversary for the borough this year: The first Dutch village was established here in August 1661 on the island the New Netherlanders named for their Staten-Generaal (state parliament). The nineteen Dutch, Walloon and French Huguenot families who moved there called it ‘Oude Dorp’ for Old Town and often still goes by that name today, in the neighborhood of South Beach, just south of the Verrazanno-Narrows Bridge.

250 Years Ago
City Island founded 1761
The languid little island, known as Minefer’s Island back when it was owned by Thomas Pell, had a small population and a minute profile until it was bought by Benjamin Palmer in 1761. Palmer wanted to built a port here to rival New York’s; he developed the island, built a bridge to make it accessible and called it City Island, a harbinger of things to come. It never did meet that promise, but the residents who call this quaint, unusual sector of the city home have no regrets.

On your way to City Island, you might be driving along the Pelham Parkway or crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge, which this year turn 100 years and 50 years old, respectively.

200 Years Ago
The Commissioners Plan of 1811
Without the Commissioners Plan, Manhattan might have developed into a confusing tangle of at-odds pathways shaped by private and competing interests. Instead, with the publication of the plan in March 1811, the future development of the island was shaped into north-south avenues and east-west streets.

150 Years Ago
Brooklyn Academy of Music opens 1861
Brooklyn opened its symphonic musical institution in 1861 as a way to keep up with New York’s high culture scene. BAM would quickly distinguish itself and outlive New York’s own Academy of Music, surviving fires and depressions by expanding its scope into a variety of arts.

100 Years Ago
The Triangle Factory Fire 1911

March 25 will be a very somber day around the Washington Square area, as the neighborhood marks the one hundred anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a terrifying tragedy killing 146 mostly immigrant factory workers which united the city in improving working conditions and building codes.

100 Years Ago
New York Public Library building opens 1911
New York civic leaders had already united their various libraries during the 1890s, and small, community libraries began popping up throughout the city. All they needed now a grand Beaux-Arts home for the finishing touch. The main branch building, constructed by Carrère and Hastings, opened on May 23.

And, as I’m sure you don’t need reminding, September will also see the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.