Day-of-Learning: The Fire that Lit the Nation

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research is proud to announce its next Day-of-Learning event which will take place on Saturday, May 13th at the Workmen’s Circle. Join us and BISR faculty and historian Jude Webre as we examine one of New York City’s defining events and its contemporary legacy.

The Fire That Lit the Nation: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy of Protest, Reform, and Remembrance

On March 25, 1911, just as the young female workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were leaving work for the day, a massive conflagration broke out on the top three floors of the building off Washington Square where the factory was housed. As investigations later revealed, negligent conditions in the sweatshop sparked the fire while, just as crucially, the locked doors of the factory blocked the escape of many workers, leading to a wrenching spectacle as they desperately leaped to the street below. All told, 146 workers – most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants from the Lower East Side – died in the fire that day, making it the deadliest industrial disaster in the city’s history. Like the events of September 11, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was singular in the city’s history, capturing the sympathies of a broader public and galvanizing the drive for labor reforms both locally and nationwide. As political challenges to the power of capital have returned to the forefront in our own era, an in-depth look at the historical factors surrounding this tragic event offers important lessons in the interrelation among organizing, ideology, public spectacle, and state power.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25th,1911

In this immersive Day of Learning, students will use primary sources taken from the Tamiment Library and elsewhere – including newspaper accounts, court transcripts, political speeches, oral histories, and photographs – to examine the circumstances of the fire from several important perspectives. Even before the fire, the Triangle Waist Company was widely regarded as one of the most egregious exploiters of “sweated” labor in New York’s garment industry, its workers having led a strike the previous year to protest unsafe conditions there. The emergence of a cross-class alliance between immigrant workers and middle-class reformers, led by women, marked an important turning point in both labor activism and the women’s movement, yet also revealed fault lines between Progressives and the growing trade union movement, centrally ILGWU. The wake of the fire also brought attention to the young women who made up its workforce: their lives as breadwinners for their immigrant families, emancipated individuals in the cultural ferment of the Village, and agents in new political communities.

The Day of Learning will proceed as follows: Dr. Jude Webre (Columbia University) will deliver two lectures on the conjuncture of political and social questions before the fire and how its aftermath affected them. This will frame two breakout sessions where students will be given time to read and discuss course materials, guided by BISR faculty. The first section will focus on the economic conditions of sweatshop labor and activist approaches to reforming the garment industry, while also considering the social experience of young female workers. The second section will examine the debate after the fire, including the impact of the spectacle on the public, liberal and radical alternatives to reform, and political and legal consequences of in the long term. Discussion will also include short excerpts drawn from Marxist and feminist theory as well as subaltern studies that will help frame the event in a broader theoretical context. The day will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring experts in history and political theory as well as contemporary labor organizers. Coffee and lunch will be provided, and light refreshments following the event. No advance preparation is required.

Tickets for the event will soon be available on the website.

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