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HBO's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Documentary: Is History Bound to Repeat Itself?

Interviews with labor experts and relatives of those lost in the fire illuminate the importance of labor protection laws.

HBO airs 'Triangle' through the end of April; check local listings for dates/times. On Saturday, March 25, CNN will air the documentary at 11 PM EST/8 PM PST.

The history of New York City is studded with stories of triumphs and tragedies, but perhaps none resonates more today than the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which took place on March 25, 1911. The incident, which killed 146 people in 18 minutes (all but 17 were female), illuminates issues of women’s empowerment, labor rights, and immigration — a potent stew that continue to trouble the country today.

This month, HBO is presenting the documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire,” directed by Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson. The narrative is framed through interviews with descendents of those who had a personal involvement with the historical event. This approach creates an emotive, rather than a clinical point of view. The Executive Producer on the project, Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, lost a great-aunt in the fire.

The film begins with a montage of young women, primarily Jewish and Italian, who have emigrated to America to flee poverty, famine, and persecution. Surviving the rigors of ocean travel in steerage class, what awaited them were not “streets lined with gold.” Rather, they found jobs for minimal pay with unregulated work conditions, often 12 to 14 hours per day.

These women and young girls, working to help their families survive, took up seamstress employment in factories that had sprung up to fill the demand for the shirtwaist blouse. The fashion trend combined a tailored shirt with an above the ankle skirt, affording women more freedom of movement in their dress. Originally modeled on the man’s button-down shirt, it was a garment of clothing that liberated the modern woman.

Toiling in harsh surroundings, the work included sewing patterns and finishing buttonholes. The job of clearing the floor of fabric scraps was assigned to the youngest girls. The untenable working environment led to the general strike of September 1909. Although women still did not have the vote, a force of 20,000 women demanded equitable labor conditions. The nascent International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWIU) directed and organized. They encouraged women to take to the streets, where they formed picket lines and stood their ground against hired hooligans — as well as the police, who roughly hauled them off to jail.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Issac Harris, were also immigrants. Known as “The Shirtwaist Kings,” they had become financially successful. A wide chasm separated their uptown luxurious lifestyle from that of their workers in the slums of the Lower East Side. Susan Harris, the granddaughter of Max Blanck says without reserve, “From a personal point of view, I’m happy my grandfather didn’t have to go to jail. From the victims’ and families’ point of view, if my daughter had died in the fire and he hadn’t been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him.”

The factory was in a new skyscraper, the Asch Building, located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. It occupied the top three floors. In these large loft spaces, machines were brought in to facilitate mass production. There was a fierce demand for faster output, due to the intense competition between manufacturers. The 9th floor of the factory was packed with 300 machines and virtually no elbow room. Workers were viewed as “cogs” in a wheel. Despite their efforts, the women could not break the bosses of the Triangle factory, who were able to survive a 13-week industry-wide strike. Few demands were met, and the women returned without union recognition.