Lest We Forget
In 1913, International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) organizer Pauline Newman declared: “The way to honor the memory of the dead is to build up a strong and powerful organization that will prevent such disasters … and serve as a monument to the dead. Lest we forget!” Between the 1920s and early ’40s, organized labor and political reformers paid tribute to the Triangle fire’s victims by continuing to build a strong union movement and advocating for legislation to ensure better working conditions.
Throughout the 1930s, the hardships of the Great Depression inspired passionate and widespread labor organizing, and for the first time unions emerged as a significant political force. Frances Perkins, who had been an eyewitness to the fire and a key player in the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet as the first female Secretary, heading the Department of Labor. There she sought to extend the FIC’s worker protections to the nation as a whole. These reforms constituted one facet of the sweeping New Deal programs, in which government played a more protective role in American workers’ lives, and workers exercised their citizenship through active participation in unions.
In Manhattan, the fledgling coalition of government, industry, and organized labor created the Central High School of Needle Trades (now the High School of Fashion Industries). The founders commissioned Ernest Fiene to paint a mural for their new building’s auditorium. Completed in 1940, Fiene’s History of the Needlecraft Industry positions the Triangle fire at a critical juncture between the exploitative labor conditions characteristic of the early garment industry and the strong worker protections ushered in by unionism and New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Fiene’s mural, executed in fresco secco, comprises two monumental panels, each measuring 17 feet high by 65 feet wide. The first panel, "Victory of Light Over Darkness," depicts the early years of the industry, while "Harmony and Achievement" portrays a new vision of society in which labor joins the governing coalition. The mural functions, in Fiene’s words, “as a lesson in democracy to the young.”
Juxtaposed here with details from Fiene’s mural is the August 1, 1938, issue of Life Magazine, which hit the newsstands while the mural was in progress. Its cover story on the ILGWU similarly contrasts past exploitation of immigrant workers, including the Triangle fire, with a utopian vision of contemporary union life.
Amanda Pietrzykowski, Maggie Schreiner,
and Emily C. Wright
Details of mural by Ernest Fiene, History of the Needlecraft Industry, Central High School of Needle Trades (now High School of Fashion Industries), New York, 1938–40, showing (top to bottom) the Triangle fire; President Franklin D. Roosevelt flanked by Governor Herbert Lehman and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, with government, retail, and union leaders; the picnic scene from the ILGWU’s play Pins and Needles; modern garment-factory workers; and allegorical figure of Achievement.