March 13, 1999
NEAL CONAN: At the beginning of this century, America was even more powerful a magnet than it is now. In those days, the principal port of entry was Ellis Island, not LAX, but people came for the same reasons: for work, for unheard-of opportunity, for a new life. Many of these new immigrants stayed in New York City, crowding into tenement apartments, and their playground was a strip of beach in Brooklyn called Coney Island. Those people and that place are the subjects of a new novel called “Dreamland.” On Coney Island, author Kevin Baker told NPR’s Brooke Gladstone about one of his main characters, a young woman named Esther Abramowitz.
Mr. KEVIN BAKER (Novelist): Esther is a young woman who works as a machine girl at the Triangle factory, has worked in a number of different sweatshops and garment factories, scrapes by, lives at home with her parents, sleeps in the kitchen on a bed made out of chairs. Pretty common life for a lot of young women in the Lower East Side at that point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE reporting: And for a break, she’d come here.
Mr. BAKER: And on the weekend, she comes to Coney Island occasionally and gets mixed up with a guy called Kid Twist, who is a young gangster, based somewhat on a real gangster by that name. And that was one of the great things about Coney Island, you know, in an era where women’s skirts were supposed to go over their ankles. You could really come here and meet members of the opposite sex. And a lot of the rides were, in fact, set up around that, to throw you together involuntarily.
GLADSTONE: Her life was so bleak, it seemed like bleakness without end.
Mr. BAKER: It was bleak. You know, she would be somebody who took a lot of comfort from friends, these very intense friendships of these women who worked in these factories, but it was a very hard existence, a real kind of numbing, backbreaking work, you know, hunched over a sewing machine, possibly being harassed by the foreman. But, you know, out of these women, too, came the fabrente mealock(ph), if my Yiddish ser-the fiery girls, the women who really built some of the great labor unions of this country, the ILGWU and Amalgamated. They’re terrific speakers. They became known as the fiery girls for these terrific, kind of street-corner oratory, which inspired a lot of other young women from other ethnic groups-Italians, Portuguese, Norwegians, women for whom the words might not come through in Yiddish, but the spirit did.
CONAN: Kevin Baker, the author of a new novel called “Dreamland,” speaking with Brooke Gladstone.
CONAN: The Triangle factory, the bleak place where Esther Abramowitz worked in the novel, was a real place. Bessie Cohen(ph) worked there as a girl of 19. She was a seamstress and one of the very few who escaped the ninth floor when the worst factory fire in American history destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. A hundred and forty-six of her co-workers died, most in the space of15 minutes. For much of the rest of her life, Bessie Cohen was active in the unions that rose in outrage to demand that people never be forced to work in such conditions again. The Triangle factory spurred other reforms as well. So many of those killed were so young that the fire helped the passage of child labor laws and firetrucks were equipped with new ladders to reach people trapped on high floors.
Last month, Bessie Cohen died in Los Angeles at the age of 107. Her passing reminded us of a documentary first broadcast 15 years ago on the women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, “The Golden Cradle,” narrated by Mandy Bynam(ph) from the NPR archives of 1984.
Unidentified Woman #1: When I came to this country, I was 13 years old, going on 14, and it really was beautiful in every way. I remember we would walk through the streets at night and the streets were crowded with people. People would come into the park and just romantically speak about things, figuring a future, without any-trying to overcome, just trying to reach, to reach.
Unidentified Woman #2: Then I see the children go to school, all clean and dressed in white. My mouth would water.
MANDY BYNAM reporting: In the first decades of the 20th century, wages were low-so low that it took the entire family to pull in the minimum needed to survive. Husbands were seasonal factory workers or day laborers; wives took in boarders, did janitorial work in the neighborhood and maintained the home for the extra wage earners; a massive army of children, so many of them girl children. America was tapping its feet to a sweet and steady rhythm. It was the music of mass production. All over the country, small fingers were sorting, wrapping, pressing, stitching and folding ostrich plumes, chocolates covered in silver paper, canned goods with bright labels, hand-rolled cigars. Signs in the shop windows advertised in Italian, Polish, Bohemian and Yiddish, ‘Good pay. Long season,’ and an American shop, an anti-union euphemism. Labor was just beginning to talk about the three 8s: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, 8 hours of sleep. Unidentified Woman #3: Childhood life wasn’t very good. We have to go to work and we walked to work. Now we can’t walk three blocks. It’s too tired. Fancy ladies-like my father said, `Fancy schmancy.’
Unidentified Woman #3: We were young. We had fear. They didn’t know our age. My hair was curly and nice, and looked like 18 years old. Because you had to get older because you wouldn’t get a job if you were so young.
Unidentified Woman #4: I wasn’t young. I was an old woman at 15, 16. The only doll I ever wanted, never got, but they were giving out Hanukkah dolls at the Jewish organization and, oh, I saw the most gorgeous dolls there in-sitting in the chairs. And when it came my turn to get a doll, they looked at me and they-`Oh, that-I guess she looks too old.’ So I got a pair of stockings, a box of candy and an orange and something else. You know, I didn’t touch that stuff and I cried. Never had a doll. But I saw to it that the other kids had dolls.
BYNAM: The new industrial jobs for women were extensions of the work they had always done at home. Irish girls worked in the industrial steam laundries, Poles and Slavs in meat packing and food processing, and Jews and Italians producing ready-made clothing. It was here in the needle trades, more than anywhere else, that emerged what was called, quite simply, the sweatshop. The sweatshop was based on the contracting system, taking unfinished goods from a manufacturer to be finished and returned at a fixed price. Work was paid by the piece rather than by hourly wage. Money earned was based on speed. The sweatshop was anywhere and everywhere a group of workers and a row of sewing machines could be crowded together. Up the flights of rickety tenement stairs, behind the closed doors, the power sewing machines vibrated. And on top of that, there were the bundles brought home to be finished at night. Some women never went to the shop at all. Their bundles were brought to them. Day after day and night after night, the work was swept from kitchen table to bed, to table again, as life centered around the boxes of work to be completed.
Unidentified Woman #5: I made pockets for pants. I just made the pockets, you see. And they would-I’d make a whole gang of them, one right after another. The part-and then somebody else puts them in. You made a bundle, you know, and they paid so much. They mark it down how many bundles you brought in. You didn’t get much money. It was really slavery.
Unidentified Woman #6: Some of them didn’t even know how to say a word of English. And they were, like, cutting threads. And remember, they used to use those nice doilies and things, and call it embroidery? In that time, there was no electric iron; they had to press them with the iron on the stove, on the coal stove or whatever. And they had small children. Those small children were helping the mother cut the threads. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have much to eat. And those children did help, did fall asleep on the table, didn’t have their right rest because, really, that work was paid so cheap. But I was lucky with my embroidery at home. I made enough to put food on the table. The main thing is that I took my father out of the coal mines. He was able to find a job with the trolleycar company, but he worked only eight hours. I worked from 8 in the morning until sometime 11 at night, by gaslight.
Unidentified Woman #7: So if you worked piecework, you worked your goddamn guts out for an extra nickel. It don’t make any sense.
BYNAM: Around the turn of the century, magazine illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created a golden image of a graceful girl. The Gibson girl came to symbolize a new identity for American women. She was confident and independent. In fact, she might even play tennis or work in an office, and she wore a pretty new man-tailored blouse with celluloid collar and cuffs, called a shirtwaist. Everyone wanted one, Yankee and greenhorn alike, and the demand for a new fashion almost single-handedly brought an important change to clothing manufacture.
Mr. LEON STEIN (Historian Emeritus, ILGWU): The shirtwaist created in the garment industry, for almost the first time, factory production.
BYNAM: Leon Stein, historian emeritus of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Mr. STEIN: People came out of the old dark, steamy sweatshops and the tenement houses to work in factories. The great thing about factories, if you can think of only one, is that it brings people together. And, while you may be forbidden to speak on the factory floor, there are the washrooms, the toilets, the staircase, the street, and that’s where you meet. And after a while, you form a union and you organize your discontent, you formulate it into demands and program, and you go on strike. And this was happening 1907, 1908, 1909. It sort of exploded in 1909, because in one particular shop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, there was overwhelming dissatisfaction.
Ms. PAULINE NEWMAN (Triangle Shirtwaist Company Employee): Triangle Shirtwaist Company just loved to employ children at the age of nine, 10.
BYNAM: Pauline Newman worked at the Triangle when she was eight years old. At 15, she was a full-time organizer for the ILGWU.
Ms. NEWMAN: And you worked seven days a week. If you didn’t come in on Sunday, you were fired on Monday. If you were caught talking to the girls next to you, you were fired. The attitude of the employers was that you are no human being, you just have two hands, and your two hands, to them, weren’t worth more than what they paid. In other words, it was a damnable place to work, but there was no alternative. The others were just as bad.
BYNAM: In 1909, clothing manufacture was the largest industry in the United States. Chicago was the center for the male clothing industry. About 69 percent of all women’s clothing was made in New York City. In the East Side factories centering around Greene, Bleecker and Canal streets worked over 30,000 ladies’ waist- and dressmakers, mostly young women between 16 and 25 years of age. In late September of 1909, workers began to picket the Triangle Waist Company. Two more companies, Leiserson’s and the Diamond Waist Company, were struck in the next months. And on November 22nd, 1909, the shirtwaist makers of New York crowded into Cooper Union to talk about a general strike in the trade. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was one of the scheduled speakers.
Mr. STEIN: I think Gompers must have been astounded to stand up on that platform and look into the auditorium, in the audience, and see what he saw. He was accustomed to seeing railroad workers, muscle, miners with muscle, Teamsters who knew how to throw horses around. And he looked out into this audience, and when he began to talk, he said, `My dear children, do you know what you are going to do now?’ He says, `They may kill you, they may beat you. If you go out, don’t come back without victory because you’ll never have this chance again.’ And they took an oath from the Psalms, `May my right hand wither. May the tongue in my mouth cleave to the roof if I forsake’-well, in the Psalm, `the Jerusalem.’ But Jerusalem is every place, and this was the way they were building Jerusalem in America.
Unidentified Woman #8: They ran out without anyone calling them or telling them to go. They just got so sick and tired of the long hours and the low wages and said, `To hell with it. We’re going out. We’re not gonna work for this anymore.’
BYNAM: Only two days later, more than 20,000 workers were on strike, picketing some 500 shops. Membership in the tiny nine-year-old International Ladies Garment Workers Union swelled by the thousands in a single week. For 13 weeks of a brutally cold winter, they kept up the strike. Every day, dozens of picketers were arrested and loaded into black marias(ph) bound for New York’s Tombs and Blackwell’s Island. At the same time, New York’s society women, including the niece of J.P. Morgan, were raising money for bail and strike benefits. The immigrant shirtwaist girls had captured the public’s imagination.
Unidentified Woman #9: They used to picket and they used to (unintelligible) us and beat us up and everything. And listen, when you worked, the boss or the foreman over your back-you went through plenty. So who had a little bit more sense? They went and the …(unintelligible).
Mr. STEIN: They dressed up to picket. People took pictures of them being arrested. They’re wearing these huge, plush coats and these broad-brimmed hats with fruits and birds’ nests on their hair. You know, today we have pickets so people go make themselves comfortable. They wear jeans and sweaters and-they dressed up for a holiday. They dressed up for something sacred.
Unidentified Woman #10: Considering the number of girls we had now, the number of scabs were nothing. And finally several of them got, I think, a 10-percent increase in their wages and a reduction in hours; settled for 56 hours a week. And so we gained very little, but it was the beginning of an organization.
BYNAM: The general strike ended officially on February 15th. The Triangle Waist Company had settled about two weeks before that.
Unidentified Woman #11: So then we settled this. We settled it, so it still was-it’s a lot-you know, at so many years, it’s a lot of things to remember. But then when it was at Triangle the fire, then it was terrible.
BYNAM: The Triangle Waist Company was located just east of Washington Square in the 10-story Asch building, a solid brick structure completed in 1901 at the cost of $400,000. Today it’s part of the campus of New York University. In 1911, two years after the shirtwaist makers’ strike, the Triangle company, occupying the top three floors of the building, was considered one of the city’s most modern factories. It had rows of sewing machines 75 feet long, two passenger elevators and one freight elevator. The lofts were well lit by a bank of windows facing Greene Street. Five months earlier, it had passed a routine fire and safety inspection.
Unidentified Woman #12: Of course, everybody knows that the windows and doors were closed. There was no other way to get out.
Unidentified Woman #13: The doors were locked because the employers thought that you would steal some material or lace. You were watched really strictly.
BYNAM: In March 1911 there were 500 employees at the Triangle, most of them Jewish and Italian teen-agers.
Ms. JEAN BIALLER KRONENBERG (Former Factory Employee): I must have been about14-13, 14 years old when I went to work there.
BYNAM: Jean Bialler Kronenberg.
Ms. KRONENBERG: And what can I tell you-how it is? It’s hard labor. We worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Worked a long week.
BYNAM: Minnie Eisenberg Jacobsen(ph).
Ms. MINNIE EISENBERG JACOBSEN (Former Factory Employee): I must have been about 14 years already. Two of my cousins came to see me and they told me they worked in the Triangle. So not saying a word, one morning I got dressed and I went to the Triangle. And I worked there a short while. Then, one day that I’ll never forget as long as I live, that fire broke out.
Mr. STEIN: Saturday, March 25th, around 4:30 in the afternoon, those few in that shop who had remained really religious were not there, see, because that’s the Sabbath. But America had taken away the faith of many, and many had come here already with their faith weakened, and they paid for it, in a sense, with this terrible loss.
Ms. KRONENBERG: Saturday was payday, and my friend and I, Eva, we had opened the envelope; we were a quarter short. And when you were short a quarter or a dime, you just nicely walked over to the office and told them you’re short, because that quarter or the dime, that was your spending money. The rest, you give it to your mother or to your rent, who you was with. We went upstairs, 5:00, my friend and I, to tell them that we were short. Then started the whole business; we heard this screaming, yelling: `Fire! Fire!’
So I was supposed to be the brains, you know. I says to my friend, Eva, `Let’s run.’ So she says, `No.’ I says, `You come with me.’ So I took her by the hand and we ran.
BYNAM: At 4:30 there was an explosion, followed by the sound of breaking glass. As smoke billowed from the eighth floor, bystanders in the neighborhood began to see bundles of dark cloth dropping from the windows. Unfurled by the wind, the bundles were seen to be girls. Bodies began thudding on the pavement below.
Ms. KRONENBERG: When-the first time some girls wanted to jump out the windows and just holler for help, it scared them. They jumped out, and they were on the roof, on the back of the dress, whoever they’re with; some of them were dead. I didn’t hear them scream anymore. My dear friend, little girl—they were sweetheart, hand in hand, embraced each other. They were on the ground, burned, dead. How I sneaked in between the others—the elevator was just loaded. There was never another elevator. That was the end of it.
BYNAM: The fire had started among the piles of rags and scraps under the cutting tables. It spread so fast that, later, the bodies of some workers would be found still seated at their machines. By the time the fire wagons arrived, the windows were jammed with trapped girls. In the next half-hour, it was discovered that the city’s tallest fire ladder only reached to the sixth floor. The single fire escape reached only to the second floor and collapsed under the weight of the girls who had managed to reach it. The elevators, jammed beyond their capacity of 15 each, finally stopped moving, blocked by the fallen bodies on top of them. And the doors to the stairwells would not open.
One hundred forty-six would die in less than an hour. The survivors made their way home alone through the streets. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, eight months later, were acquitted of charges of manslaughter by a court that saw no evidence of criminal liability.
Unidentified Woman #14: They were fined $75 per person who died, entered into the grace. They should have not only been fined millions, they should have been sent to jail, too. No, it was not an accident, and no one is going to convince me otherwise, judges or anybody else. Oh…
Mr. STEIN: Harris and Blanck, who owned that firm, in a matter of weeks, I think two or three weeks, opened another shop on University Place, stacked it up with workers and locked the doors again, all over again-you know, `Let ’emburn.’ I researched the insurance aspect of it, and I think I calculated that they made $8,000 or $10,000 on every corpse that they produced. But life was cheap in general. The life of a worker was cheap then. We still have to fight to show that it means something.
Unidentified Woman #15: Then I rested; I had to go back to work. Those days they depended on every dollar. I didn’t go back to the Triangle, see? I worked in other places, but I never went to the Triangle.
Ms. KRONENBERG: We were young children. We were innocent. We didn’t know nothing about it. No matter how little we made, we were happy. We learned to sing; this one sang a song, that one sang a song. Were always saying, ‘Well, come on, Jeannie, let’s dance.’ So then when happened a tragedy like that, you can’t sing. And many times I wake up during the night and I cry, and I don’t even know why I’m crying. It just starts down me, and I want to forget it. You can’t forget it so fast, never. I’ll never forget it.
Unidentified Woman #16: I worked as hard as I could. I got paid as good as they paid me, and I used it to good use, and that’s all.
CONAN: “The Golden Cradle” was narrated by Mandy Bynam, written and produced by Deborah George and mixed by Linda Mack.
© 1999 National Public Radio ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.