The Far Side of Heaven: one immigrant family's brush with the Triangle Waist Fire

March 21, 2011 recently published: The Triangle Fire: Remembered a Century Later, in which we discussed that tragedy.  HBO's Triangle: Remembering the Fire airs on March 21, 2011, at 9 PM ET.

Subsequent play-dates:

  • HBO: 3/25 at 6:30 PM ET; 3/27 at 1 PM ET, 3/31 at 11:30 AM ET; 4/2 at 3:45 PM ET, and 4/5 at 11:45 PM ET). 
  • HBO2: 3/23 at 8 PM ET; 3/29 at 12:30 PM ET; 4/6 at 5PM ET, 4/15 at 5:20 AM ET, and 4/27 at 11:30 AM ET.

The response from readers of The Triangle Fire: Remembered a Century Later was amazing, and included many personal histories about that day and how it impacted New York City immigrant families.  This morning, I offer you one such narrative from Ron Berti, a Wall Street compliance veteran and acquaintance:

The following is an excerpt from "THE FAR SIDE OF HEAVEN,"
a family history by Ronald E. Berti,

 IMMIGRANT LIFE  1910-1914

Life was very hard in spite of these humorous incidents. In truth they represent rare islands of fun in an unending sea of grinding struggle. While most men went into the restaurant trade, the women worked as seamstresses in sweatshops. The term sweatshop referred to a garment factory which had closed windows and doors. The resulting lack of fresh air and ventilation combined with the hectic pace at which the workers were forced to labor for long hours at a time made the atmosphere intolerably warm and caused them to "sweat". These were grim and frightening places for these young girls who had never experienced the seamy side of urban life. The culture shock must have been tremendous. All of the horror and indignities of the pre-Union industrial America were present there.

The insides of the buildings were open loft floors with row upon row of sewing machines. A pit boss monitored the progress of his squad of girls. Underage children were employed to bring work to the girls and retrieve the finished product from them so they didn't have to get up from their machines. The young married women were encouraged to bring their children to fill these jobs. This parent child working relationship made the Triangle fire even more of a calamity.

Breaks in the work were few and far between. The girls were forced to sew a fixed amount of "pieces" an hour. The "pieces" were later sewn by another crew into the finished garment in another part of the factory. Hence the garment industry term "piece-work". All the sewing machines were treadle operated. Electric machines were too costly when you could make the worker provide the "horsepower".  Mary Balestrero remembers my grandmother, Clarina Mortara (Nonni), telling her how even after many years she still could hear the voice of the "Head of the Squad" crying: "Quick, quick." My mother remembers her work week always included a half day on Saturday well into the 1920's.

The conditions in those places were deplorable. None of the machines were built with worker safety in mind and loose threads and material cuttings cluttered the floors, creating a first class fire hazard. The owners did not hire bi-lingual managers. If there were any safety procedures, there was no one to tell to the girls in their own language. As a result, when the fire started panic ensued and the bodies of scores of girls and children were found huddled up against the locked doors. 

Before World War I, Clarina would speak of seeing signs on the sweat shop walls that said: "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday". They went on strike in 1914 to secure the right to have a half a day off once a month. She was working in a sweatshop in Washington Square when on March 25, 1911, she witnessed the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire across the street. One hundred and forty-five people died, including seventy-five young Italian girls. The catastrophe had been exacerbated by the fact that the owners ordered the doors locked to prevent entry by late arriving workers. Their policy was that if you were one minute late, you lost a day's pay, which Nonni said, was 50 cents.

The buildings themselves were old by 1910 standards, and had inadequate and rickety fire escapes which collapsed under the weight of the fleeing workers, had narrow winding interior staircases, and had no fire doors or fire extinguishers. Nonni said the trapped girls were so desperate to escape, that some of them threw themselves out the windows hoping the people in the crowd below would break their fall. It was a nightmare that she remembered all her life and was reticent to talk about and always brought tears to her eyes upon re-telling. Once she briefly revealed the names of a few of the victims. I think she may have had some close personal friends about her age of 17 who perished in the flames, but, her willingness to expand upon the details was very limited, brief and stoically matter of fact before welling up with emotion.

Conditions steadily got better due to the increasing membership in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Union strikes and tough labor negotiations eliminated child labor and slavishly long hours. The women were now paid by "the piece". Their wages were directly determined by their productivity. I remember Nonni discussing how she got 1/4 of a penny for a button and 1/2 a penny for each button hole. You do this for eight hours a day and it adds up.

Nonni was an early union member, and she remembered ILGWU President David Dubinsky when he was a union organizer and went into the sweatshops to speak to the workers. She said more often than not, for all his effort, he got beaten up by management thugs. She admired him for his perseverance in pursuit of what she felt was a serious attempt to better her working conditions. As I recall it now, initially, she was more concerned with working in a safe environment than with better wages.

While she felt the Union had vastly helped her economically and in improving her working environs, she was resistant to the strike requests of the subsequent leadership. She felt you should only go out on strike for a good cause. She always said that when one goes out on strike, no matter how much of a wage increase one gets, one never makes up the wages lost during the strike. She felt that the later Union management was too eager to ask the workers to strike for issues that could be negotiated with a little bit more effort. In those last years, she consistently voted with the majority of the Union against going out on strike.  

The first job that Nonni had in 1910 paid $3.00 a week for about 60 hours work. A U.S. Immigration Commission study of 1910 showed an Italian family earned $688.00 per year or $112.00 less than the $800.00 needed to survive. This explains the need for the early arrivals to huddle in railroad flats. With the pitiful wages they earned, they needed to band together to survive. This is the enduring theme that my mother keeps trying to pound through my head: They either helped each other or they starved. In later years this helpful spirit born of early immigration days was so ingrained that it was the underlying principle of the Fubinese Society.

No matter what they earned, there was a formula by which the Fubinese handled their money. A quarter of their monthly income was sent back to Fubine. In 1914, Italians sent 66 million dollars back to Italy. This was a much needed infusion of money to villages that were depleted by immigration. One half was contributed to their room and board. The remaining quarter was theirs to do with as they please. Virtually all of them saved as much as they could so they would have a nest egg for marriage and the raising of a family. When Teresa Maria DeMartini got married she had accumulated about $200.00 in six years by saving about .65c a week. This was a goodly sum in those days.

There was no doubt that these people came to better their lives. They worked hard to make a new life. Few Fubinese took a criminal bent. Many of these people represented the "intelligentsia" of Fubine. Few, if any, had any formal education, they had a native innate intelligence which served them well. They had inquisitive minds that responded well when exposed to learning. They were never satisfied with their station and constantly worked very hard to improve themselves. In spite of their long hours at their regular jobs, many had a second job, or, like Rosa Gotta, took in washing to earn extra money.

They all were able to do something, and no matter what it was, they all did it well. The first immigrants had it the hardest, but as more came they all helped each other. As a result, they did not need any outside help. Had there been any public assistance available at the time, it is doubtful that they would have accepted it. They had too much pride and integrity.

One could reasonably say of the Fubinese at that time that their Eleventh Commandment was:

"Thou shalt learn how to do something constructive and do it well, so that thou shalt always be able to earn a living."

Nonni used to say to me that only the tough stayed. It is safe to say that the experience alone toughened them all. We can all take pride in their perseverance in the face of such hardships and humiliations.