To commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Waist Factory Fire, The City Reliquary will display Robin Berson’s memorial quilt in its front room exhibition space until May 2017.
The Triangle Waist Factory Fire
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:45 pm, almost closing time, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Waist Company located one block east of Washington Square Park at Washington Place and Greene Street. The owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to reduce theft. Fire escapes collapsed by the weight of the workers dropping them to their deaths. Workers on the 10th floor were warned by telephone and escaped to the roof. No one warned the workers on the 9th floor. A locked exit door trapped the workers on the 9th floor. Surrounded by flames many of the workers jumped to their death. Fire trucks arrived but their ladders only reached the 6th floor and the rescue nets could not hold the force of the bodies jumping from such a height. The heroic elevator operators ran the elevators as long as they could as workers pressed into the cars; some tumbled down the elevator shaft. In the end, 146 people died.
The Triangle Fire—and the memorial quilt—represent an appalling moment in history, but one that drew an intelligent, far-reaching reform response across America. The fire became a rallying cry for the international labor movement and resulted in numerous state and national workplace reforms. Many of our fire safety laws were created in response to this tragic event. That is the history we must keep alive, for the sake of every working person in the country (and, in this globalized world, every worker everywhere). The need is greater than ever.
The Memorial Quilt
The Triangle Factory Fire Memorial quilt is one of two quilts in the series Workers Memorial Quilts created by quilter, author, and historian Robin Berson. The two quilts honor garment workers who died in twin workplace disasters that bookended the past century: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the Tazreen fire and Rana Plaza collapse of 2012 and 2013 in Bangladesh.
Conceived, Designed, and Sewn:
Sandra Cain, Donna Choi, Deanna Gates, Pauline Hazard, Genevieve Hitchings, Maureen Hyslop, Jennifer Merz, Rena Rappaport, and Lea Williams Rose
To make this quilt, Robin Berson put out a call to a number of quilters’ guilds, assorted artists’ circles—and quite a few women. The quilt includes blocks by four quilter’s guild members: Sandra Cain, Pauline Hazard, Maureen Hyslop, and Rena Rappaport; two members of Robin’s knitters’ circle: Lea Williams Rose and Deanna Gates; and three students from an FIT class on illustration: Donna Choi, Jennifer Merz, and Genevieve Hitchings. Robin created the rest of the blocks herself, in some cases working from old family portraits and archival photos, but in most cases tinkering elaborately with enlarged images from small photos in 110-year-old newspaper clippings.
In addition to the factory worker victims, the quilt also depicts the two heroic elevator operators, Joey Zito and Gaspare Mortilalo; and the African American porter, Thomas Horton.
Texts on the quilt include passages from beloved labor songs and quotes from notable American figures on the rights of workers—from Frederick Douglass to Dwight Eisenhower to Myles Horton—plus a listing of all the victims’ names.
The memorial quilts have been displayed at numerous small museums and galleries in New York City; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Iona College; the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, through the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. In March 2015 they were featured at the conference of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, hosted by Fordham Law School. For International Women’s Day 2016 they were part of a day-long presentation on the Triangle Fire at Hofstra University. The Triangle Quilt is featured in the book Quilts and Human Rights, with a foreword by Desmond Tutu.
For more information see: