MONTPELIER — The 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in Manhattan is one of the most notorious chapters in American labor history. Prevented from escaping due to locked doors, 146 women garment workers perished, some by jumping out of windows. The workers were immigrants, mostly Jewish but others as well. Two were 14 years old.
The shirtwaist story has been told many times, but this new book takes an entirely different approach. “A Shirtwaist Story,” by Montpelier artist and writer Delia Bell Robinson focuses on the haunting memories of Peter, a descendant of the family that owned the sweatshop. The book is published by Fomite Press, of Burlington.
Part graphic biography, part art book, Shirtwaist uses colorful, imaginative cartoons and hand-written text to portray Peter’s relationship to his family and to tell the story of the fire. Stark paintings illustrate New York’s Lower East Side, victims of the fire and the family’s origins in the Russian Pale of Settlement, in which Jews were confined from 1791 to 1917.
The book began with a chance meeting of Robinson and Peter, who became friends. His story emerged over time, and Robinson documented his recollections, writing and drawing on the pages of an old book. An exhibit of some of the pages at a concert produced by the Barre Historical Society/Old Labor Hall commemorating the fire’s 100th anniversary, led Robinson to expand the work into an exploration of memory, history and family secrets.
Robinson is perhaps best known for her clay whistles depicting narrative scenes. She is currently working on a series of essays and whistles based on the ballads collected in the British Isles by Harvard professor Francis James Child in the 19th century, which will also be published by Fomite Press.
“A Shirtwaist Story” is available through Fomite Press, and Robinson’s website. For more information go to delia-robinson.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org