Image: Shirtwaist factory workers preparing for a strike, from the National Women’s History Museum
On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers working in New York City – most of them young, immigrant women – lost their lives in a deadly fire. The rights of the workers were already undervalued in favour of increased production, and the overcrowded factory, unsanitary conditions and locked exits created a literal and violent death trap. The incident created an uproar concerning the dismal conditions under which these women were forced to work, and raised issues concerning labour and union rights still relevant today.
Cornell University: The Triangle Factory Fire
For those of you wishing to learn the basic facts concerning the fire, this website is an archive containing firsthand testimonials, newspaper articles, resources for further reading, and a detailed timeline of events, from the garment industry strikes of 1909 to the legal aftermath and protests.
The New York Times Tag: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
The Times has been building an excellent database of images, videos, and modern perspectives on lessons learned in the fire’s aftermath – and how far we have to go (see also Nancy Goldstein’s writing at the American Prospect).
American Experience: Triangle Fire
PBS has an hour long documentary that you can view in its entirety on their website. For those of you with access to HBO, they will be airing a documentary of their own several times within the next few weeks.
The Price of Fashion (1910)
While you are on the PBS website, be sure to check out this gallery of images taken in the years surrounding the fire, chronicling the working conditions that went into constructing the clothing seen in fashion magazines.
“Fashion is a social force that functions effectively not only as an economic engine but as a semiotic system that transmits social and political messages by means of nonverbal language rich in signs, symbols and iconography.” - Ayala Raz, The Equalizing Shoe
For most people, shoes are not the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Jewish cultural heritage. However, after taking a look at Jews and Shoes, a compilation of fourteen academic essays on the apparently unique relationship Jewish people have had with shoes, one must rethink the assumption that shoes are of no particular importance.
Given the Jewish people’s legacy as eternal wanderers, it makes sense that footwear may have taken on a deeper meaning for them. However, this book is far more detailed than that. Split into four thematic sections, it covers a variety of cultural instances where shoes play an important role: religion and the Bible, memorials, political ideology and the arts. To my mind, the strongest essay in this book is a fascinating analysis that questions the commodity fetishism of the piles of shoes found at Holocaust memorials. Having never been to a Holocaust memorial myself, I was surprised to learn of their emphasis on displaying the personal items of those interred and killed at the camps to show the magnitude of the numbers of possessions that were methodically sorted into piles by Nazis intending to redistribute them later. The author, Jeffrey Feldman, does an absolutely superb job of relating memorial attendees’ very visceral reactions to these piles upon piles of shoes of all sorts and the sights, smells, and textures that come from all that rotting leather. The questions posed are not only thought provoking in terms of the legacy of the Holocaust, but about how artefacts and museum objects are structured and displayed in order to evoke an emotional response.