Kai Ryssdal: The Triangle Waist Company was one of the biggest garment factories in New York in the spring of 1911. It made women’s shirts, “shirtwaists,” as they were called. Young women, mostly immigrants, worked at the factory — packed tightly together, surrounded by piles of cotton fabric, and paper patterns and lots of many other flammable things. We’ve got pictures of it — if you want to check it out.
A hundred years ago this coming Friday, those piles of cotton caught fire. It burned through three floors in 18 minutes. It left 146 people dead and became the tipping point for major labor reform in this country. Marc Levin is the producer, and Daphne Pinkerson the director, of a documentary that airs tonight on HBO. It’s called “Triangle: Remembering the Fire.” Welcome to the program.
Daphne Pinkerson: Good to be here.
Marc Levin: Thank you.
Ryssdal: The Triangle Factory was a place where sisters and aunts and nieces all worked together, and one of the things you did, Daphne Pinkerson, in this film, is you tracked down the descendants of some of those women, some of the survivors and some of the victims. Including this woman, who in the tape we’re about to play — she had two great-aunts in that factory the day it started burning.
Clip from “Triangle”: When that fire broke out, Katie told me she was actually with Rosie and then lost her in the smoke. And I don’t know whether — this is so emotional for me, it’s extraordinary to me how emotional it is — I think that Rosie could have gone back to look for Katie, you know? I think there was so much of this trying to find each other, because she was the older sibling. And Rosie never made it out.
Pinkerson: She knew the surviving aunt.
Pinkerson: The generation of survivors and witnesses is gone — there’s nobody left. But most of the people that we talked to saw the pain in their relatives. Our executive producer at HBO, Sheila Nevins, she grew up thinking that she had a relative who died in the fire, but whenever her name would come up, her grandmother’s eyes would fill with tears and the conversation would end. So we had to the research to find her death certificate to confirm that she had in fact died in the fire.
Ryssdal: Marc, other than the obvious 100th anniversary of this tragedy, why tell this story now? Why go back to it?
Levin: I have to be honest, I don’t think we ever planned the opportune timing. All these issues that were in the middle of the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy and the reforms that were made, it’s all being discussed again 100 years later — the right to collective bargaining, the power of unions, how to protect working people. In fact, the chant that went up after this tragedy was, ‘Who will protect the working girl?’ And now we hear people from all sides saying, ‘Who will protect working people?’
Ryssdal: Let’s try to put this in some historical context, Daphne. It’s, as you say right at the beginning of the film, it’s when the Gilded Age of great wealth accumulation in this country by businessmen is giving way to progressive reforms in the early part of the 20th century.
Pinkerson: You know, a lot of people think the Gilded Age was the Golden Age, but for most people, it was a cruel environment. There were no protections, no child labor laws — none of these things that we take for granted today. In the early 1900s — 1909 to 1910 — 20,000 Shirtwaist workers, most of them young women, organized at a time they didn’t have the vote. And wealthy suffragettes, they stood on the picket lines with them. There was a broad-based movement coming together to rise up against so much wealth concentrated in the hands of so few people.
Ryssdal: Marc, what happened right after this fire? There was a great outpouring of grief in New York City amongst the working class. But what else happened to change the politics and the labor environment of the time?
Levin: Al Smith became governor of New York and was actually the first Catholic to run for the presidency. And it’s really fascinating to hear his great-grandson admit that in many ways, he was just a Tammany Hall hack.
Ryssdal: Alfred E. Smith IV, you had on, his great-grandson.
Levin: That’s right. And he talks about his great-grandfather and says that this fire changed his great-grandfather. And whole reform movements started, which really culminated in the New Deal. I think part of why we remember it and it’s so important, this 100th anniversary, is that something good came out of this.
Ryssdal: Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson and their film, “Triangle: Remembering the Fire” about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It airs tonight on HBO. Thanks a lot you guys.
Levin: Thank you very much, appreciate it.
Pinkerson: Thank you.
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