On Friday evening, March 24, two young sisters walked down the stairways from the ninth floor where they were employed and joined the horde of workers that nightly surges homeward into New York's East Side. Since eight o'clock they had been bending over shirt-waists of silk and lace, tensely guiding the valuable fabrics through their swift machines, with hundreds of power driven machines whirring madly about them; and now the two were very weary, and were filled with that despondency which comes after a day of exhausting routine, when the next day, and the next week, and the next year, hold promise of nothing better than just this same monotonous strain. They were moodily silent when they sat down to supper in the three-room tenement apartment where they boarded. At last their landlady (who told me of that evening's talk, indelibly stamped upon her mind) inquired if they were feeling unwell. "Oh, I wish we could quit the shop!" burst out Becky, the younger sister, aged eighteen. "That place is going to kill us some day." It's worse than it was before the strike, a year ago," bitterly said Gussie, the older. "The boss squeezes us at every point, and drives us to the limit. He carries us up in elevators of mornings, so we won't lose a second in getting started; but at night, when we're tired and the boss has got all out of us he wants for the day, he makes us walk down. At eight o'clock he shuts the doors, so that if you come even a minute late you can't get in till noon, and so lose half a day; he does that to make sure that every person gets there on time or ahead of time. He fines us for every little thing; he always holds back a week's wages to be sure that he can be able to collect for damages he says we do, and to keep us from leaving; and every evening he searches our pocketbooks and bags to see that we don't carry any goods or trimmings away. Oh, you would think you are in Russia again!" That's all true; but what worries me more is a fire," said Becky, with a shiver. "Since that factory in Newark where so many girls where burnt up there's not a day when I don't wonder what would happen if a fire started in our shop." "But you could get out, couldn't you?" asked the landlady. "Some of us might," grimly said Gussie, who had been through last year's strike, and still felt the bitterness of that long struggle. "What chance would we have? Between me and the doors there are solid rows on rows of machines. Think of all of us hundreds of girls trying to get across those machines to the doors. You see what chance we have!" "Girls, you must leave that place!" cried the landlady. "You must find new jobs!" "How am I going to find a new job?" demanded Gussie. "If I take a day off to hunt a job, the boss will fire me. I might be out of work for weeks, and I can't afford that. Besides, if I found a new job, it wouldn't be any better. All the bosses drive you the same way, and our shop is as safe as any, and safer than some. No, we've got to keep on working, no matter what the danger. It's work or starve. That's all there is to it." The next morning the two sisters joined their six hundred fellow-workers at the close-packed, swift machines. All day they bent over endless shirt-waists. Evening came; a few more minutes and they would have been dismissed, when there was a sudden frantic cry of "Fire!" - and what happened next all the country knows, for it was in the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory that Becky and Gussie Kappelman worked. The fire flashed through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the great building like a train of powder; girls were driven to leap wildly, their clothes afire, from the lofty windows; and in a few brief moments after the first cry one hundred and forty-three workers, the vast majority young girls, were charred bodies heaped up behind doors they had vainly tried to beat down, or were unrecognizable pulp upon the street far below. And as for Gussie and Becky, who had gone to work that fatal day knowing their danger, as all the workers knew it, but helpless in their necessity what of them? Gussie was one of those who met a horrible death. Becky, in some way unknown to herself, was carried down an elevator, and to-day lies in a hospital, an arm and a leg broken and her head badly bruised. Frequently the young girl calls for her older sister, but her condition is too precarious for her to stand the shock of the awful truth, and the nurses have told her that Gussie is injured in another hospital. And so Becky lies in the white cot waiting until her wounds and Gussie's shall have healed and they can again be together. Miriam Finn Scott, “The Factory Girl's Danger,” The Outlook, April 15, 1911, p. 817.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
For discussion questions and related lesson plan, see http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/from-suffering-to-action-from-individual-to-collective
Time Period: Modern (Spinoza through post-WWII)