Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Write in the HISTORICAL genre (05/03/07)
TITLE: The 1911 Sabbath Shirtwaist Makers
By Cassie Memmer
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“I’m sure you’ll like it and we can walk to work together. I’ve been here since arriving
from Ireland six months ago. It’s long hours but it pays $1.50 a week. In another eight
months I’ll have enough saved for my wedding!”
Rosie scanned the huge room on the ninth floor of the Asch building. Lit with open gas
lamps, she viewed the rows of sewing machines on long tables manned by young girls
stitching as fast as they could treadle. She sat at a machine and began her first day as
a sewing machine operator for The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the largest maker of
shirtwaists in America. Nearby, Katie’s green eyes flashed Rosie encouragement, then
giving her red hair a flip, she turned to her sewing.
Mindless sewing gave Rosie opportunity to miss the family she’d left in Poland. Papa
had sacrificed to send her, alone, to the Golden Land. His final parting words burned in
her heart. “Keep the Sabbath, no matter what sacrifice you must make.”
“Lord, how can a Jewish girl obey her papa, when this new land demands we work on
Saturdays? My uncle says I must work, yet I can’t ignore papa’s instructions.”
Their 14 hour day finished, she and Katie exited from the single unlocked door. “Why
do they keep the other door locked?”
“You’ll see.” As the employees headed for the stairs, a guard searched each one to
find any would-be thieves. “They don’t trust us, hence... only one way out,” Katie
Each Sabbath Rosie gave her boss an excuse for not working. After missing three
Saturdays, her boss realized what the young Jewish girl was doing. “Rosie,” he
warned, “come to work Saturday or find a new job.”
Her aunt and uncle insisted she work on the Sabbath. Torn, she devised a plan. Early
Saturday morning she left the apartment, taking her lunch.
Katie walked to work alone on Saturday. Rosie’s missing another workday. She’ll lose
her job for sure this time. She headed to her machine and started sewing.
Someone screamed. Katie looked and saw flames shooting from a bin of scrap
material. The shop often had small fires, easily extinguished with a bucket of water.
But this one flashed through the cotton, sped through patterns and other flammables,
spreading before they had a chance to get it under control.
The girls sprang from their machines and rushed to the one unlocked door. Thick
smoke and flames clogged the stairwell. They dashed to the fire escape, but the girls
on the floor above were already fleeing down it. Katie watched helplessly as the fire
escape twisted and collapsed under the weight of so many people, sending them to
The girls panicked. There was no way out! They ran to other windows, breaking them
out. “Help!” “Call the firemen!” “Get a ladder!”
Fire seized the room. Screams overpowered the roar of flames as the heat and smoke
wrapped its vile self around the young girls.
The firemen arrived. Their ladders reached only to the sixth floor. They opened a
lifenet. Two girls jumped at once, landing on the net, tearing it apart. Starved for air, so
many pushed against the window jams, the jams gave way, dropping them to the
pavement. More began jumping the eighty feet downward, seeking release on the
unforgiving street rather than burning to death.
Katie pushed her way to the window, desperate for air. Flames licked at her heels.
“Oh, God, help me!” she cried. She breathed the devilish heat and jumped.
A policeman walked through the mounds of broken bodies on the sidewalks. On each
fallen girl he placed a tag on her wrist. Number 54, he noted, had red hair and wore an
Rosie walked Manhattan’s streets all day long. She went to Washington Square park
and sang Sabbath songs. After dark she returned home, wondering how she would tell
her family she no longer had a job.
She arrived to find her family distraught. Upon seeing her, their agitation turned to
shock, then wonder. “Where have you been?” her uncle asked. They told her of the
horrible fire and how they’d believed she had perished.
Rosie grieved for her friends. She remembered her papa’s last words. “God is
watching over you, guiding you. Be faithful to Him. Remember His laws. Keep the
Sabbath and the Sabbath will keep you.”
Author’s note: 146 girls, mostly immigrants, some as young as 12, died in this fire on
Saturday March 25, 1911 . 62 jumped to their death. After a failed prosecution against
owners, a civil suit won $75 compensation for each victim’s family. Rosie Goldstein,
faithful to her father and the Jewish Sabbath, lived to be 82 years old. Her story is true.
Katie’s story is fiction except for the engagement ring found on victim #54.
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