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A hundred years since the Triangle Fire

On March 25, 1911, a fire spread through the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The mostly immigrant workers, young Italian, Jewish, and German women who sewed shirtwaists, or women’s blouses, were trapped behind locked doors. The death toll was 146, and many women, their clothing and hair burning, threw themselves from the windows to their deaths on the pavement far below, while spectators watched and could not help. Shortly thereafter, twenty thousand women struck for improved working conditions and wages. The factory building is now part of New York University. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire remains the fourth largest industrial disaster in U.S. history.

Bodies falling through the air
when all exits from the fire are closed
to them and flames lick their skin:
we have seen that.

In our time and theirs.
Labor was cheap then;
too often cheap now, sweat
shops, whether crammed into

Brooklyn lofts or shipped
overseas. Women are cheap and
children are cheaper. Doors
locked against their escape.

Growing up in center city
Detroit when the factories
hummed like huge hives
at night and the sky was pink

from steel mills on the river
I learned early how replaceable
we all were to those with
power to replace us.

I see your charred clothes
glued to flesh as you hurtle
toward pavement, my sisters,
hard worked women with

blistered hands, forced to labor
six days, whose rest came
only in histories that can never
rectify what greed ignited.

Marge Piercy ( is the author of The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010, her latest collection of poetry, published this year by Knopf on International Women’s Day.

2011, Volume 62, Issue 11 (April)
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