Saturday, March 26, 2011

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Devastation at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Within the past month, I have seen two television features related to the same event: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Today is the 100th anniversary of that tragedy. Although it is an incredibly sad story, I think it’s really important to revisit what happened that day: 

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the most devastating disasters of the Industrial Revolution. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located at 23-29 Washington Place, in the center of Manhattan. It was apparently considered a “good” place to to find a position, because it had work year round. Workers claimed the doors were often locked in order to prevent the theft of materials, a build-up of fabric scraps were often left out, and there were no sprinkler systems; there were only buckets of water available in case of fire.  At the end of the work day, on March 25, 1911, a fire ignited on the eighth floor of the Factory. Lucky workers were able to  escape onto the roof or down the elevator before it stopped operating. Trapped workers on the ninth floor struggled helplessly to open the locked doors that led to the Washington Place Stairs. The rusty ninth floor fire escape broke under the weight of all the factory workers rushing to escape. Workers waited at the windows for help, only to discover that the fire departments’ ladders could reach no higher than the sixth floor. Nor could the water from their hoses reach the fires. Some workers jumped from the ninth floor windows, breaking through safety nets held by firemen below. All told, 146, of approximately 500, employees were killed, most of them young Italian or European Jewish immigrant women. Most of the victims were between the ages of 16 and 23. The fire lasted less than thirty minutes.

The victims came to the United States with the desire to find better opportunities for themselves and their families. They had hopes and dreams that were to remain largely unfulfilled. Instead of leading better lives, they performed long hours of grueling physical labor for very little time off and incredibly low pay. Their work conditions were inhumane, unsanitary and dangerous. Workers lacked power and a political voice. As such, they were often at risk of exploitation and personal indignities. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a non-union shop. Although some of the workers were members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, an employee who aired her grievances might find herself without a job. This did not prevent women from joining unions, and it didn’t prevent them from drawing strength and daring from the other young women in the factory, either.

The aftermath. See The Wichita Eagle for more images.
Preceding the fire of 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s employees participated in a walkout. The walkout of 1909 was supported by The Women’s Trade Union League, which was made up of middle class women.  This progressive association helped employees picket outside the Factory. They also protected protesters from thugs and the police. Shortly thereafter, at a historic meeting held at Cooper Union, labor rights activist Clara Lemlich, who was a young woman at the time, called for a general strike. Thousands of garment workers from all over New York City were inspired by her call to do just that. The Cloakmakers’ Strike of 1910 led to victory for factory workers. A grievance system was put into place in the garment industry. However, it was difficult to penalize sweatshop owners who chose to disregard the rights of workers.

After the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the city grieved for the dead. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, daughters, sons, fiancees, fiances, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors were lost in the fire. The Executive Board of the Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union, Local No. 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Women’s Trade Union League, the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee to provide assistance for the survivors and families of the victims. The Joint Relief Committee also worked with the American Red Cross to meet their needs. 

Garment workers demand change after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
People knew safety precautions could have prevented the fire. After the city mourned the victims, it raged for them. People protested the greed and indifference to human dignity that had led to such a tragedy. They demanded justice. The owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of manslaughter, because they were said to have deliberately locked the doors on the ninth floor during work hours. The locked doors prevented the escape of many workers. Locking doors during work hours was against the law, but workers testified that doors were kept locked to prevent internal theft. The defendants’ lawyer Max Steuer was able to convince jurors the owners may not have DELIBERATELY locked the doors. Both Blanck and Harris were acquitted. After the criminal trial, 23 civil suits were brought against Blanck and Harris. They eventually settled, agreeing to pay $75 per life lost.

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the New York Factory Investigative Commission fought to provide better work conditions and protective legislation for factory workers. Local governmental agencies created codes to further improve workers’ conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire demonstrated to all involved just how little attention was paid to factories and their workers. This led to improvements in fire safety and changes in the labor code of New York State. Unions, having a group voice, could effectively make changes in the workplace.

Garment workers strike for rights. Read and see more at Time Magazine online.
 With all the anti-labor sentiments I keep hearing about all over the country, most noticeably from Wisconsin, this terrible event serves as a good reminder for why the ability to unionize, and the right of unions to have collective bargaining rights, is essential. Because things are so good NOW, we forget just how many people dedicated their lives, or lost them, to gain rights for us, the workers of today. We grow complacent and think that what we have gained cannot be lost. We must keep ever-mindful of the fact that the benefits and protective regulations we have at work are due to the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us. We need to resist any efforts to weaken unions.

You can find a good amount of information about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire by searching it online, but I think Cornell University's "Remembering The Triangle Factory Fire" is awesome! It has links to first-hand accounts and other primary documents, which I spent some time exploring. I gathered a lot of my information from this site. Also, make sure to check out one of the documentaries about this tragedy. I saw a segment on "Sunday Morning" and a documentary on PBS, but there are more.

Power to the People - 


  1. Kevin Baker's novel "Dreamland" has a passage on the Triangle fire. It's a fictionalised account, but really well written.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Laurence! I'll have to check that book out.