Source: The Jewish Americans: "They Came to Stay"
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This video segment from the documentary The Jewish Americans outlines the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was owned by Max Blank and Isaac Harris, ambitious Russian Jewish immigrants. Their company employed Jewish immigrants who worked in sweatshop conditions. On March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. The exits were locked, and fire truck ladders only reached to the sixth floor, so there was no escape for the workers trapped inside the burning building. One hundred forty-six workers were killed. Although Blank and Harris were tried for manslaughter, they were acquitted.
American history, Jewish studies, Social studies, geography
The following Frame, Focus and Follow-up suggestions are best suited for middle school students using this video in an English language arts or social studies lesson. Be sure to modify the questions to meet your students' instructional needs.
What is Frame, Focus and Follow-up?
Frame (ELA) What are the major elements of any story? What does each element contain?
Focus (ELA) As you watch the video, determine the main characters, setting, major events of the plot, and climax of the story.
Follow Up (ELA) What is the resolution of the story? What is the overall theme of the story?
Frame (SS) What is a sweatshop? In what time period did they primarily exist? Describe the people who might have worked there.
Focus (SS) As you watch the video, determine the aspects of the sweatshop that made it so detrimental to the workers.
Follow Up (SS) Why is the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still important to the rights of workers today?
NARRATOR: Max Blank and Isaac Harris, two ambitious Russian Jews, were a couple of shrewd operators in the garment industry. Owners of the Triangle Waist Shirt factory the largest blouse making factory in New York, they were known in the business as the shirt waist kings.
AMY KOLEN: They started out in the garment trade, like other people, and they just rose up and, you know, were very successful. And they were people who struggled and made a success and then exploited other people.
DAVID VON DREHLE: I am sure they looked around their factory and said these people have no idea how good they have it. They should have been in the tenements with us.
NARRATOR: Blank and Harris employed some 500 employees, mostly young women. When the fledgling International Ladies Garment called a strike most of them walked off the job. Thousands of other women joined them; demanding their rights that they could never of in the old country. They were becoming Americans. The women spent months on the picket lines before the unions and factory owners stuck a deal and the strikers went back to work. But when the women returned to their sewing machines at the Triangle not much had changed.
MS. KOLEN: You know they worked elbow to elbow. It was excruciatingly hot in the summer. As many people were crammed in to these huge loft spaces as possible.
BRUCE RAYNOR: The floor was a mess of little scrapes of cloth, of thread and everything else. They were piled high with garments, with scraps, with work waiting to be sewn, with work that had already been sewn. They were really fire traps.
NARRATOR: Saturday, March 25th 1911, was a beautiful day. As usual, the workers arrived at the Triangle around 8 in the morning, headed for their jobs on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors. By quitting time, the young women were already looking forward to Sunday, their one day off.
MR. VON DREHLE: They were laughing and somebody was singing a hit song. A couple of other people joined in. I used to be able to sing it. Sings: Every little movement has a meaning of its own. Every thought and feeling by some gesture can be shown. And then they say flames rising outside the windows.
NARRATOR: Someone had carelessly thrown a match or cigarette butt in to a scrap bin in the 8th floor.
MS. KOLEN: Everything just went up. The place was a tinder box. Narrator: A storm of fire poured through the elevator and stairs to the floors above, Cahan’s Forward reported, to where lots of horrified girls stood in despair.
MR. VON DREHLE: The disaster was on the 9th floor. The fire escape was not designed more hundreds of panicked people. It tore away from the wall and two dozen people spilled to their deaths. All the exits were cut off. The door was locked as it was every day until closing time.
MS. KOLEN: They would keep them locked, I think, to keep union agitators from getting in and to keep workers from leaving with possibly a scrap of material or maybe leaving before closing time.
MR. VON DREHLE: Thousands of people were out enjoying the afternoon. They heard the fire engines charging through the streets. They saw the smoke rising over the buildings and could see these trapped workers overhead. They watched as the tallest ladder in the New York Fire Department was raised towards the 9th floor. It stopped at the 6th floor that was as far as it could go. And the workers began to jump.
MR. RAYNOR: The workers wore skirts, so they looked like parachutes coming down. Narrator: A reporter at the scene described what he saw and heard. “I learned a new sound--a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads.
NARRATOR: 146 workers were dead; 23 young men and 123 young women. Outrage and grief swept the city. Hundreds of thousands jammed the funeral rout for the victims. Triangle owners, Blank and Harris, were tried for manslaughter. They were acquitted.
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