Saturday, March 26, 2011

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Devastation at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Within the past month, I have seen two television features related to the same event: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Today is the 100th anniversary of that tragedy. Although it is an incredibly sad story, I think it’s really important to revisit what happened that day: 

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the most devastating disasters of the Industrial Revolution. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located at 23-29 Washington Place, in the center of Manhattan. It was apparently considered a “good” place to to find a position, because it had work year round. Workers claimed the doors were often locked in order to prevent the theft of materials, a build-up of fabric scraps were often left out, and there were no sprinkler systems; there were only buckets of water available in case of fire.  At the end of the work day, on March 25, 1911, a fire ignited on the eighth floor of the Factory. Lucky workers were able to  escape onto the roof or down the elevator before it stopped operating. Trapped workers on the ninth floor struggled helplessly to open the locked doors that led to the Washington Place Stairs. The rusty ninth floor fire escape broke under the weight of all the factory workers rushing to escape. Workers waited at the windows for help, only to discover that the fire departments’ ladders could reach no higher than the sixth floor. Nor could the water from their hoses reach the fires. Some workers jumped from the ninth floor windows, breaking through safety nets held by firemen below. All told, 146, of approximately 500, employees were killed, most of them young Italian or European Jewish immigrant women. Most of the victims were between the ages of 16 and 23. The fire lasted less than thirty minutes.

The victims came to the United States with the desire to find better opportunities for themselves and their families. They had hopes and dreams that were to remain largely unfulfilled. Instead of leading better lives, they performed long hours of grueling physical labor for very little time off and incredibly low pay. Their work conditions were inhumane, unsanitary and dangerous. Workers lacked power and a political voice. As such, they were often at risk of exploitation and personal indignities. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a non-union shop. Although some of the workers were members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, an employee who aired her grievances might find herself without a job. This did not prevent women from joining unions, and it didn’t prevent them from drawing strength and daring from the other young women in the factory, either.

The aftermath. See The Wichita Eagle for more images.
Preceding the fire of 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s employees participated in a walkout. The walkout of 1909 was supported by The Women’s Trade Union League, which was made up of middle class women.  This progressive association helped employees picket outside the Factory. They also protected protesters from thugs and the police. Shortly thereafter, at a historic meeting held at Cooper Union, labor rights activist Clara Lemlich, who was a young woman at the time, called for a general strike. Thousands of garment workers from all over New York City were inspired by her call to do just that. The Cloakmakers’ Strike of 1910 led to victory for factory workers. A grievance system was put into place in the garment industry. However, it was difficult to penalize sweatshop owners who chose to disregard the rights of workers.

After the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the city grieved for the dead. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, fiancees, fiances, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors were lost in the fire. The Executive Board of the Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union, Local No. 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Women’s Trade Union League, the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee to provide assistance for the survivors and families of the victims. The Joint Relief Committee also worked with the American Red Cross to meet their needs. 

Garment workers demand change after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
People knew safety precautions could have prevented the fire. After the city mourned the victims, it raged for them. People protested the greed and indifference to human dignity that had led to such a tragedy. They demanded justice. The owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of manslaughter, because they were said to have deliberately locked the doors on the ninth floor during work hours. The locked doors prevented the escape of many workers. Locking doors during work hours was against the law, but workers testified that doors were kept locked to prevent internal theft. The defendants’ lawyer Max Steuer was able to convince jurors the owners may not have DELIBERATELY locked the doors. Both Blanck and Harris were acquitted. After the criminal trial, 23 civil suits were brought against Blanck and Harris. They eventually settled, agreeing to pay $75 per life lost.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the New York Factory Investigative Commission fought to provide better work conditions and protective legislation for factory workers. Local governmental agencies created codes to further improve workers’ conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire demonstrated to all involved just how little attention was paid to factories and their workers. This led to improvements in fire safety and changes in the labor code of New York State. Unions, having a group voice, could effectively make changes in the workplace.

Garment workers strike for rights. Read and see more at Time Magazine online.
 With all the anti-labor sentiments I keep hearing about all over the country, most noticeably from Wisconsin, this terrible event serves as a good reminder for why the ability to unionize, and the right of unions to have collective bargaining rights, is essential. Because things are so good NOW, we forget just how many people dedicated their lives, or lost them, to gain rights for us, the workers of today. We grow complacent and think that what we have gained cannot be lost. We must keep ever-mindful of the fact that the benefits and protective regulations we have at work are due to the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us. We need to resist any efforts to weaken unions.

You can find a good amount of information about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire by searching it online, but I think Cornell University's "Remembering The Triangle Factory Fire" is awesome! It has links to first-hand accounts and other primary documents, which I spent some time exploring. I gathered a lot of my information from this site. Also, make sure to check out one of the documentaries about this tragedy. I saw a segment on "Sunday Morning" and a documentary on PBS, but there are more.

Power to the People - 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quote of the Moment, No. 1

I LOVE this quote from Eat, Pray, Love.  I think I need to hang it on my bathroom mirror as a reminder to be accepting of myself, no matter how my clothes look on any given day.

I know I’m late in jumping on the Eat, Pray, Love bandwagon, but I’m glad I finally got here.  I just finished touring Italy, and I’m all packed and ready for India. If you’re not familiar with this title, it’s the memoir of a woman who isn’t happy, although she has the typical trappings of modern American life. She leaves on a year-long journey to find herself, by exploring corporeal pleasure in Italy, spiritual devotion in India, and the balance between the two in Bali.

What keeps me reading is author Elizabeth Gilbert’s well-written prose. Also, the fantasy, which has been criticized by some reviewers. While Elizabeth Gilbert had the luxury of tackling the huge challenges in her life while traveling extensively through exotic locales, most of us have to face ourselves from the (dis?)comfort of our own daily lives. Who wouldn’t want to run away from normalcy in order to find oneself? That just doesn’t happen for most of us. I think what we can learn from Gilbert’s story, though, is that self-knowledge does not depend on your location; it depends on your willingness to seek the answers within yourself and your ability to be open to the consequences, no matter where you are.

Happy traveling within -

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hello, Spring

Ooh, Buttercups. How sweet! 
 Today was the first full day of Spring, and it sure felt grand. I spent some time outside admiring the new growth, playing fetch with my dog underneath the sun, and taking in the sweet air one slow breath at a time. When the days stretch before me, seemingly without end, I feel inspired to create more, move more, do more and be more. Spring represents new beginnings, and, in atypical good form, I held a little goal-setting session on the back porch (as if starting a blog and looking for a new job weren’t enough to keep me busy).

I have a to-do list a mile long: develop a collection of repeat pattern designs; attend a meeting of the Kansas City Modern Quilt Guild; get started on the mini-memorial quilts I would like to make in honor of my grandmother, who passed away in September; hang out with my friends, as I’ve been neglecting them; clean(!!); write more; cook better meals (I am the Sandwich Queen); finish my latest cut-paper collage; get to bed at a reasonable hour, etc.

I work best when I set deadlines (or have them set for me, preferably!). My creative goal for this week is to finish five repeat pattern designs. Cross your fingers you’ll see them by this time next week! My functioning properly in life goal is to do my dishes. Tomorrow. No excuses!! We’ll see about the rest...

What goals are you making this spring? Anything extending into summer? I would really like to plan a luau! I'm already collecting tiki-themed dishes. Goofy? But of course!

Happy Spring,
Alison :)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Freedom Ride

This motorcycle wouldn't intimidate me! Doesn't she look sweet with her wide-brimmed hat and granny boots. Find this and other historical photos at

When surveys ask for “three words that describe you,” I always say I am “creative, compassionate and kooky.” Exchanging any one of those words for “cautious” would be just as accurate. I am cautious; I wear my seat belt, avoid confrontations, and do the right thing. Rarely will you find me speaking out of turn, driving over the speed limit, or butting in line. Sometimes, though, I have to force myself to take a risk. Yesterday offered up one of those opportunities.

I had the chance to kick caution to the curb and go on my first motorcycle ride. My boyfriend needed to get his motorcycle inspected, and he asked me to come along. With nerves aflutter and a little pants wetting, I accepted the challenge, I mean, invitation. Now, I didn’t exactly ride fear-free into the sunset (NOT EVEN CLOSE), but I did accept the idea that I can enjoy myself even while fearing the unpredictable outcome. Fear of the unknown and fun in the present can exist in the same continuum. I am sure daredevils everywhere already know that, but I am new to the game.

I know (even when I don’t accept it) that although I may FEEL like I am in complete control, I am really NOT. And that can be okay. I had a great time on my ride. I loved being so visible and feeling the wind rush by. I enjoyed the purity of driving unimpeded by an enclosure. I felt like a kid on a bicycle, riding down the big hill in my childhood neighborhood. It probably helped that we stayed within city limits and never went faster than 35 miles per hour. Even so, a lot of the time I worried I was going to have a heart attack or slide off the back of the bike and break my legs or get into a head-on collision with a box truck. But I did it anyway. Even if I did resist the turns. I like to stay upright. I mean, I can’t change myself all at once. I DO like to remain in control. Leaning into curves goes against my nature, but I am learning to bend.

Here's to many more adventures - 
Alison :)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cookie Cutters and Robot Printers

My pink plastic cupcake cookie cutter sans cookie (umm, yeah, I have a

cookie problem), alongside a traditional metal cookie cutter.
Chalanna's cute rubber ducky cookie cutter with peanut butter cookie 
(photo by Chalanna, enlarged too much by me).
What better way to combine design, robotics, manufacturing, and baking than by creating your own cookie cutter with the assistance of a MakerBot and a computer program? When my friend Chalanna invited me to participate in a cookie cutter party at her friend Matt’s house, I anticipated bending metal into simple shapes or simply testing out cookie cutters created by Matt. I was pleasantly surprised when I learned I could make a happy, pink plastic cookie cutter in the shape of my heart’s desire (a cupcake), without doing any of the grunt work.

To make our cookie cutters, we used MakerBot Industries’ DIY Cupcake CNC 3D desktop printer (hee hee, I didn’t know the name of Matt’s 3D printer when I designed my cookie cutter). I plotted a “sketch” of my cupcake on a related computer program. Then, we sent my design from the computer to the plastic-extruding printer, just like printing a Word document (okay, okay, there’s specialized programming involved for the owner/user of the 3D printer, but you get the idea). And, voila, in just a few minutes, you have a self designed and produced masterpiece in plastic!

The cookie cutters worked just beautifully, and the results of our cookie cutting tasted great, too! I had a great time, and I am open to other creative adventures if you’ll have me, dear friends and readers.

Being an artist who often works with repetitive elements and has an appreciation for geekery AND plastic, I am quite excited by these machines. Can’t you just imagine using one to create buttons or small shapes, such as plastic feathers, to add texture to a garment? Or how about creating your own 3D menagerie of mythological beasts? Or JEWELRY? Fun stuff to consider, for sure. I guess I’d better brush up on my programming skills, or else make some like-minded techie friends, pronto!

For more information, be sure to visit MakerBot Industries at the website, or search 3D printing and/or rapid prototyping. Also, check out Matt’s art projects at and Chalanna’s cheerful design offerings at

Alison :)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New Day, New World

A ridiculous cake, made using techniques I learned in a cake decorating class.

I meant to begin this blog ages ago. My family and friends have probably grown sick of hearing me say, "When I start my blog..."  Well, here it is! Finally, after all these years!

Two weeks ago today, the day after my 30th birthday, a little black cat unexpectedly ushered in a new era. I lost my job and my security (maybe that never really exists), and now I get to explore who I am and what I can do. What better way to celebrate this opportunity to change my world than by blogging about about my life, my interests, and whatever else inspires me!?  

I am working on feeling grateful to be out of my comfort zone, in a position where I must be creative and innovative!! And thank heavens for the beautiful people in my life!

Alison :)