Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Letter to Michael and Hugh

From Pauline M. Newman

Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P.M. Newman, typescript, May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Ithaca, NY.

Pauline Newman was born in Lithuania around 1890 and came to the United States in 1901. Soon after her arrival, she went to work to help support her family. As a young teenager, she became employed at the Triangle Factory. She was no longer employed there by the time of the fire but she wrote the following description of working conditions at this factory and speaks about why workers endured the indignities. Information on where to obtain more biographical information about Newman is at the end of this letter.

Page 1

Dear Boys:

Here I am -- on board the Liberte, en route to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend a meeting of the I.L.O. (International Labor Organization). It is the month of May, 1951. My first class cabin is very comfortable and pleasant. I could not wish for better accomodations (sic). The food is excellent. The service is adequate. The flowers friends and associates sent are delightful and much appreciated. The weather, too, is all one could desire. I have settled down in my deck chair -- relaxed and content. The daily chores, the unavoidable irritations, the worry over big and little things I left behind -- for the time being, at least. Just to sit and watch the changing colors of the sea, now green, then blue and finally merge with the white of the waves -- is like a tonic to a tired body. The sky is a heavenly blue with just a few cumulus clouds. How lovely and how restful! For the moment peace and contentment replaced somber thoughts and a restless spirit. It is, I think, quite natural that I should, under these circumstances, think of you all and wish for your presence.

Thinking of you two, brought to mind the many times you asked me to tell you a story when I was with you and how I would always tell you that I am not very good at storytelling and offered to read to you instead. Now, however, I am beginning to realize that time is passing swiftly and that in the nature of things I shall not be with you much longer. One must resign to the inevitable. I am therefore, going to try and tell you a story, after all -- my own story -- a story which I hope you will, when you grow up, find interesting and informative. There is quite a gap between your life and mine. I would like to, if at all possible, that is, if I can, fill that gap.

[omitted: descriptions of her early childhood in Lithuania, coming to the United States in 1901, becoming politicized, looking for employment, working in a hairbrush factory, hand rolling cigarettes, and sewing buttons on shirtwaists. In the following passage, Newman describes getting a job at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory.]

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One day a relative of mine who was employed by the now infamous Triangle Shirt Waist Co., the largest manufacturers of shirt waists in New York City, got me a job with that firm. The day I left the Jackson street shop the foreman told me that I was very lucky to have gotten a job with that concern because there is work all year...

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... round and that I will no longer have to look for another job. I found later that workers were actually eager to work for this company because there was steady employment. For me this job differed in many respects from the previous ones. The Triangle Waist Co. was located at Green street and Washington Place. This was quite a distance from my home. Since the day's work began at seven thirty it meant that I had to leave home at six forty, catch the horse car -- yes, boys, there were horse cars in those days, then change for the elctric (sic) trolley at Duane and Broadway and get off at Washington Place. You will be interested to know that both rides cost only a nickel and if I remember a-right the service was much better than it is to-day when we pay fifteen ["fifteen" is crossed out and hand written above it is "20"] cents for a single ride!

The day's work was supposed to end at six in the afternoon. But, during most of the year we youngsters worked overtime until 9 p.m. every night except Fridays and Saturdays. No, we did not get additional pay for overtime. At this point it is worth recording the generocity (sic) of the Triangle Waist Co. by giving us a piece of apple pie for supper instead of additional pay! Working men and women of today who receive time and one half and at times double time for overtime will find it difficult to understand and to believe that the workers of those days were evidently willing to accept such conditions of labor without protest. However, the answer is quite simple -- we were not organized and we knew that individual protest amounted to the loss of one's job. No one in those days could afford the luxory (sic) of changing jobs -- there was no unemployment insurance, there was nothing better than to look for another job which will not be better than the one we had. Therefore, we were, due to our ignorance and poverty, helpless against the power of the exploiters.

As you will note, the days were long and the wages low -- my starting wage was just one dollar and a half a week -- a long week -- consisting more often than not, of seven days. Especially was this true during the season, which in those days were longer than they are now. I will never forget the sign which on Saturday afternoons was posted on the wall near the elevator stating -- "if you don't come in on Sunday you need not come in on Monday"! What choice did we...

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... have except to look for another job on Monday morning. We did not relish the thought of walking the factory district in search of another job. And would we find a better one? We did not like it. As a matter of fact we looked forward to the one day on which we could sleep a little longer, go to the park and get to see one's friends and relatives. It was a bitter disappointment.

My job, like that of the other kids was not strenous (sic). It consisted of trimming off the threads left on the shirt waists by the operators. We were called "cleaners". Hundreds of dozens of shirt waists were carried from the machines to the "children's corner" and put into huge cases. When these were trimmed they were put in similar empty case ready for the examiners to finish the job. By the way, these cases were used for another purpose which served the employers very well indeed. You see, boys, these cases were high enough and deep enough for us kids to hide in, so that when a factory inspector came to inspect the factory he found no violation of the child labor law, because he did not see any children at work -- we were all hidden in the cases and covered with shirt waists! Clever of them, was it not? Somehow the employers seemed to have known when the inspector would come and had time enough to arrange for our hiding place.

As I said before, the job was not strenous (sic). It was tedious. Since our day began early we were often hungry for sleep. I remember a song we used to sing which began with "I would rather sleep than eat". This song was very popular at that time. But there were conditions of work which in our ignorance we so patiently tolerated such as deductions from your meager wages if and when you were five minutes late -- so often due to transportation delays; there was the constant watching you lest you pause for a moment from you work; (rubber heels had just come into use and you rarely heard the foreman or the employer sneak up behind you, watching." You were watched when you went to the lavatory and if in the opinion of the forelady you...

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... stayed a minute or two longer than she thought you should have you were threatened with being fired; there was the searching of your purse or any package you happen to have lest you may have taken a bit of lace or thread. The deductions for being late was stricktly (sic) enforced because deductions even for a few minutes from several hundred people must have meant quite a sum of money. And since it was money the Triangle Waist Co. employers were after this was an easy way to get it. That these deductions meant less food for the worker's children bothered the employers not at all. If they had a conscience it apparently did not function in that direction. As I look back to those years of actual slavery I am quite certain that the conditions under which we worked and which existed in the factory of the Triangle Waist Co. were the acme of exploitation perpetrated by humans upon defenceless (sic) men women and children -- a sort of punishment for being poor and docile.

Despite these inhuman working conditions the workers -- including myself -- continued to work for this firm. What good would it do to change jobs since similar conditions existed in all garment factories of that era? There were other reasons why we did not change jobs -- call them psychological, if you will. One gets used to a place even if it is only a work shop. One gets to know the people you work with. You are no longer a stranger and alone. You have a feeling of belonging which helps to make life in a factory a bit easier to endure. Very often friendships are formed and a common understanding established. These among other factors made us stay put, as it were.

[omitted: descriptions about learning English and studying literature with the Socialist Literary League]

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One evening I was walking home from a long day's work. It was summer. But by evening the air was a bit cool and I rather liked the walk home. The sights were familiar, the usual sighns (sic) of poverty and all the resulting misery therefrom. As I saw the little children playing in the gutter, the men and women looking tired and drab, the dark and filthy tenements I thought -- dear God, will this ever be different? When I got home I sat down and wrote:

"While at work I am thinking only of my own drab existence. I get discouraged and a bit low in my mind - every day the same foreman, the same forelady, the same shirt waists, shirt waists and more shirt waists. The same machines, the same surroundings. The day is long and the task tiresome. In despair I ask -- "dear God will it ever be different?". And on my way home from work I see again those lonely men and women with hopeless faces, tired eyes; harrased (sic) by want and worry -- I again ask "will it ever be different?". I wrote more of the same and when it was done I decided to send it to the Forward. Of course I did not expect it to be accepted or published. I did not think it was good enough for publication. I was not a writer and I knew it. But, I did want to express my feelings and get them down on paper. There was satisfaction in doing just that. I posted the article and did not give it another thought.

A few days later, it was a Saturday, as I was approaching the Triangle factory I noticed a number of my fellow workers holding the Forward and pointing to something, and when they saw me they all shouted congratulation and hailed me as a conquering hero -- for my piece was published! I could hardly believe it! but there it was, my name and all. This I believe was one of the highlights in my life. Perhaps a minor one compared with what was to follow in the years ahead. However, at the time it was an achievement I did not anticipate. Encouraged by the success of my first attempt to give expression to my thoughts and feelings I tried again and again and each time my articles and stories were accepted and published. I became "famous" almost over night. In a small way I became the voice of the less articulate young men and women with whom I worked and with whom later I was to join in the fight for improved working conditions and a better life for us all.

[In the rest of this paper, Newman wrote at length about getting involved in the 1909 Shirtwaist Makers Strike. By the time of the 1911 Triangle Fire, she had moved on to a new role as organizer and activist in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, sparing her the horrors of the fire. She became ILGWU's first full-time woman organizer, spoke at the 1909 Shirtwaist Makers Strike, and went on to become an organizer for the union in the northeast and midwest. In this position, she played a role in numerous major strikes. She founded the ILGWU's Health Center and was Director of Health Education, 1918-1980. Newman's other positions over the years included Advisor to the United States Department of Labor in the 1930s and 1940s, member of the Board of Directors for the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, and she served with the Women's Trade Union League. In short, she led a long, productive life working to provide a positive answer to her question, "Will it ever be different?"]

To learn more about Pauline Newman, her life and career, read Annelise Orleck's book Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States,1900-1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Pauline Newman being interviewed while standing in front of the Asch Building