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Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST COMPANY FIRE

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that took place in New York City on March 25, 1911, remains a landmark event in the history of U.S. industrial disasters. The fire that claimed the lives of 146 people, most of them immigrant women and girls, caused an outcry against unsafe working conditions in factories and sweatshops located in New York and in other industrial centers throughout the United States and became the genesis for numerous workplace safety regulations on both the state and federal level.

The ten-storey Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. The top three floors of the building housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The Triangle Company, like its competitors, used subcontractors for the manufacture of women's clothing. Under this system, workers dealt directly with subcontractors who paid them extremely low wages and required them to work long hours in unsafe conditions. The Triangle Company was the largest manufacturer of shirt-waists in the city, employing approximately 700 people. While the subcontractors, foremen, and a few others were male, the great majority of the workers were female. Most of the Triangle workers, who ranged in age from 15 to 23, were Italian or European Jewish immigrants. Many of them spoke little English. Their average pay was $6 per week, and many worked six days a week in order to earn a little more money.

Like many of their fellow immigrants in other factories throughout the city, the Triangle Shirtwaist workers labored from 7 in the morning until 8 at night with one half-hour break for lunch. They spent their time hunched over heavy, dangerous sewing machines that were operated by foot pedals. The rooms in which they worked were dirty, dim, and poorly ventilated. The finished shirtwaists hung on lines above the workers' heads and bundles of material, trimmings, and scraps of fabric were piled high in the cramped aisles between the machines. Most of the doors were locked on the theory that locked doors prevented the workers from stealing material.

In November 1909, these conditions led the local labor union to call for a strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Over the next few weeks, the strike spread to the city's other shirtwaist manufacturers. Although local newspapers referred to the general strike as the "uprising of the ten thousand," estimates of the actual number of women workers who participated in the walk out range from 20,000 to 30,000. Predictably, government officials, the media, and the public split into two camps with unions, labor organizations, and blue collar workers supporting the strikers while businesses and industrial leaders denounced them.

Although the manufacturers tried a number of tactics to break the strike including mass arrests and the use of thugs to beat and threaten the workers, public opinion appeared to reside with labor. In February 1910 the opposing groups reached a settlement which gave the strikers a slight wage increase. Although the strikers thought they had gained a shorter work-week and better working conditions, no changes were made. In particular, union demands for better fire safety were not addressed.

Saturday shifts generally ended earlier than weekday shifts. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, workers in other parts of the building had left at around noon. Many of the 500 workers present that day at the Triangle Company had begun to put away their work and to put on their hats and coats in anticipation of the factory's 4:45 p.m. quitting time. At approximately 4:30 p.m. the cry of "Fire!" was heard on the eighth floor. Pandemonium ensued as flames began to leap over the piles of rags that littered the floor. While a few workers attempted to throw buckets of water at the fire, terrified women and girls struggled to make their way to the narrow stairway or the factory's single fire escape. Others crowded into one of two elevators (one was not in service) as the fire spread to the ninth and tenth floors.

Most of the workers on the eighth floor were able to make their way to safety. Workers on the tenth floor where company offices were located received a phone call about the fire and were able to climb to the roof of the fireproof building where they made their way to the adjoining New York University building and were rescued. Those on the ninth floor were not as lucky. The fire moved so quickly, that the corpses of some were found still seated in front of their sewing machines. As the conflagration built, the workers on that floor found no way to escape. The exit doors, which swung inward, were locked. The one working elevator, after making its way down with the first load of workers, stopped working. The number of workers on the fire escape was so great that it gave way and collapsed, killing a number of girls and women who were on it. Some women tried to slide down the elevator cables but lost their grip and plunged to their deaths. As horrified onlookers watched, other desperate workers began breaking windows and jumping from the ninth floor to the street.

As corpses piled up on the sidewalks outside the building, two fire fighting companies arrived followed by several others but found themselves helpless. Their ladders only extended to the sixth floor and their hoses were too short to be of use. They tried to use safety nets, but girls and women jumped in groups of three and four breaking the nets and fatally hitting the concrete pavement. In less than 15 minutes a total of 146 women and girls had died from burns, suffocation, or falls from the fire escape, the elevator shafts, or the ninth floor. Although the remains of most of the workers were identified within one week, seven remained unidentified.

The gruesome events of the day consumed the city of New York for a number of weeks. Most people were repulsed at the horrific way in which the women had died and the lack of safety precautions that had led to the massive loss of life. However, some defended the right of businesses to operate as they saw fit and to remain free from government safety regulations which they saw as government intervention. Many government officials pronounced themselves powerless to impose safety regulation.

An investigation ensued and the owners of the company were ordered to stand trial on charges of manslaughter. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although many contended it was caused by a spark from one of the sewing machines or a carelessly tossed cigarette. Blanck and Harris were acquitted by a jury charged with deciding whether they knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire. The families of 23 of the victims filed civil suits against the owners, and in 1914 a judge ordered them to pay $75 to each of the families. Three days after the fire, the Triangle Company inserted a notice in trade papers stating that the company was doing business at 9-11 University Place. Within days, New York City's Building Inspection Department found that the company's new building was not fireproof, and the company had already permitted the exit to the factory's one fire escape to be blocked.

Immediately after the fire, numerous organizations held meetings to look into improving working conditions in factories and other places of work. A committee of 25 citizens, including frances perkins and henry l. stimson—who later became cabinet members in President franklin d. roosevelt's administration—was created as a first step in establishing a Bureau of Fire Prevention. A nine-member Factory Investigating Commission, chaired by state senators Alfred E. Smith (the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928), Robert W. Wagner, and union leader samuel gompers, worked from 1911 to 1914 to investigate fire safety as well as other conditions affecting the health and welfare of factory workers.

In 1912 the New York State Assembly enacted legislation that required installation of automatic sprinkler systems in buildings over seven stories high that had more than 200 people employed above the seventh floor. Legislation also provided for fire drills and the installation of fire alarm systems in factory buildings over two stories high that employed 25 persons or more above the ground floor. Additional laws mandated that factory waste should not be permitted on factory floors but instead should be deposited in fireproof receptacles. Because of the bodies found in the open elevator shafts of the Asch Building, legislation was enacted that required all elevator shafts to be enclosed.

The scope of safety laws was expanded by legislation that limited the number of hours that minors could work and prohibited children under the age of 16 from operating dangerous machinery. Many laws passed by the New York Assembly in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were the basis of similar workplace safety legislation in numerous states throughout the country.

Another byproduct of the fire was an increased support for unions, particularly the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The ILGWU, to which some Triangle company employees had belonged, helped form the Joint Relief Committee which collected moneys to be distributed to the families of the lost workers. The union gained thousands of new members in industrial centers around the country and helped to lobby for stricter safety regulations, many of which eventually were encoded in federal legislation passed during the administration of President Roosevelt. These laws, in turn, were the genesis of the U.S. labor department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA was established in 1971 by the occupational safety and health act to improve workplace safety conditions for the nation's workers who numbered 111 million in 2003.

further readings

Cornell University Library. 1998. The Triangle Factory Fire. Available online at <www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire> (accessed September 10, 2003).

De Angelis, Gina. 2001. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911. New York: Chelsea House.

McClymer, John F. 1998. The Triangle Strike and Fire. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace College.

Stein, Leon. 2001. The Triangle Fire. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Von Drehle, Dave. 2003. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

cross-references

Workers' Compensation.

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Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

The fire that swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on March 25, 1911, caused 146 deaths. Not only was it New York City's worst factory blaze ever, it was the second deadliest of any kind (after the General Slocum conflagration), and one of the worst disasters to afflict a group of workers since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Located in lower Manhattan, just east of Washington Square Park, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a typical American sweatshop of the early twentieth century, when the labor movement and government regulation of business had yet to take firm hold in the United States. The company employed 500 womenmostly Jewish and Italian immigrants between the ages of thirteen and thirty-three who worked long hours under unsanitary and unsafe conditions for an average of $6 a week. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company produced women's tailored shirts that were assembled on the top three floors of a ten-story building. Most of the exit doors were kept locked to enforce worker discipline, and fire protection was confined to twenty-seven buckets of water and a single fire escape.

At 4:45 p.m. on March 25, 1911, the sounding of the company bell signaled the end of another working day. As the workers assembled their belongings, someone yelled "Fire!" For reasons that remain obscure, flames had begun to sprout from a rag bin on the eighth floor, and several workers tried to douse them with the available buckets of water, but to no avail. Within minutes the entire eighth floor was engulfed in flames that fed on the abundant cotton fabrics. The 275 women on the floor bolted for the only exits: the two passenger elevators and the stairway.

The elevators, which only held ten people each, made enough trips to the eighth floor to vacate nearly all of its workers, many of whom staggered gasping onto the street, their clothing smoldering or partially burned. Most of the workers on the tenth floor managed to escape as well.

The workers on the ninth floor, however, were not as fortunate. The flames had raced upward and enveloped most of the ninth floor, where most of the additional 300 workers were struggling to escape from the rapidly igniting piles of cotton fabric. At first the women stampeded to the east stairway, but it was an impassable tower of flame. They then raced to get to the west-end stairway and passenger elevators, but the door was locked, and the elevator was slow in coming to their aid. The frantic women began to hurl themselves down the elevator shaft and out the ninth-floor windows, all of them falling to their death. In addition, those seeking to escape by the rear fire escape were killed when the structure collapsed under their collective weight.

By that time, fire rescue teams had arrived, but their life nets simply ripped apart when struck by the force of three or four bodies at once. Moreover, their ladders were useless, extending only to the sixth floor, and the stream of water from their hoses reached only the seventh floor.

The public revulsion over the abysmal working conditions at the factory prompted the governor to appoint an investigative panel within a month of the fire. New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, Alfred E. Smith, and Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, headed the Factory Investigating Commission. Five years of hearings and fact-gathering led to the passage of important factory safety legislation. Several months after the blaze the New York City government established the Bureau of Fire Regulation, which enhanced the fire department's powers to enforce fire safety rules in factories. The tragedy proved to be a turning point in promoting the idea of government safety regulation of private enterprise in the United States.

See also: Death System; Grief: Traumatic; Social Functions of Death

Bibliography

New York State Factory Investigating Commission. Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission. Albany: The Argus Company, 1912.

Rosner, David, and Gerald Markowitz. Deadly Dust. Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

ROBERT KASTENBAUM

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KASTENBAUM, ROBERT. "Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. 31 Aug. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

KASTENBAUM, ROBERT. "Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (August 31, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200296.html

KASTENBAUM, ROBERT. "Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2002. Retrieved August 31, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407200296.html

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FIRE

TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FIRE. Late on the afternoon of Saturday, 25 March 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on New York City's Lower East Side, where some 500 garment employees worked overtime to fill back orders. The floors were littered with inflammable chemical fluids and piles of fabrics, ensuring that the fire spread quickly through the congested building. When workers rushed to the doors,


they found some locked, just one of several safety regulations habitually violated. The only fire escape, a flimsy and narrow ladder, immediately collapsed. In a matter of some 15 minutes, the fire snuffed out the lives of 146 workers, most of them Jewish girls and young women. On 5 April, while many of the victims were being buried in another part of the city, half a million spectators watched some 75,000 to 100,000 workingmen and working women march in protest up Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan.

The Triangle fire occurred soon after a fatal accident in a lamp factory in Newark, New Jersey, on 26 November 1910 and major industrial disasters at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia on 6 December 1907 and at the Cherry Mine in Illinois on 13 November 1909. Consequently, the Triangle fire prompted some Americans to condemn corporate greed. The state of New York immediately formed the Factory Investigating Commission and overhauled or enacted three dozen laws dealing with factory safety between 1912 and 1914. A large number of states, including Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin, soon followed New York's lead. The incident also provided a decisive impetus for further protective labor legislation with stringent provisions in the remaining years of the Progressive Era, including employers' liability, worker's compensation, workday and workweek laws, occupational disease and comfort laws, and industry-specific health and safety laws for mining, railroading, and construction. New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, who served as chair of the Factory Investigating Commission, became the principal author of the National Labor Relations Act, called the Wagner Act, in 1935. Much of the protective labor legislation and enforcement of the Progressive Era formed an ideological and constitutional-legal foundation for New Deal labor legislation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dubofsky, Melvyn. When Workers Organize. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968.

Foner, Philip S. Women and the American Labor Movement. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Park, David W. "Compensation or Confiscation," Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2000.

DavidPark

See alsoNational Labor Relations Act ; New York City ; Progressive Movement ; Workers' Compensation .

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Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FIRE


Into the early twentieth century businesses operated free of government regulation and with few industry standards. No building codes existed and regular machinery or fire inspections were not performed. "Sweatshops" were common, where people worked for very low wages in crowded, unsafe conditions with poor ventilation or inadequate heat. No limit existed for the number of hours a person could be required to work, and child labor laws were non-existent. Fresh to the United States, speaking little English, and desperately seeking employment, immigrants were especially vulnerable to sweatshop employment. While seeking a better life in the United States immigrants instead often found exploitation and impoverishment. Children could be found routinely working in mills and factories under dismal conditions. Often women and their children worked side by side for over 15 hours a day.

Such a factory sweatshop operated in New York City's Greenwich Village section in 1911. It produced women's clothing and employing primarily women. Over 500 garment workers performed low-paying piecework for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the top three stories of the Asch Building, a ten-story building near Washington Square in New York City. Many of the women were recent Italian and Russian Jewish immigrants, mostly between 16 and 23 years of age, with some girls even younger. The building's structure was considered fire proof, but the interior on the upper three floors was packed with flammable objects including clothing products hanging from lines above workers' heads, rows of tightly-spaced sewing machines, cutting tables bearing bolts of cloth, and linen and cotton cuttings littering the floors.

Few fire escapes were present, and company management had a policy of locking most exits, supposedly to guard against break-ins, but more accurately meant to contain the workers. The unlocked exits were only 20 inches wide, designed to restrict access by no more than one person at a time and to guard against employee theft. Though the company was a non-union shop, some of the workers had joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), formed in 1900. The building experienced several small fires, leading to complaints concerning insufficient exits from the building. In 1910 a general Cloakmakers' Strike to improve sanitation and safety conditions in New York City had been held. The strike led to the formation of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control to establish appropriate standards. Triangle's employees who had joined in the strike, however, had been replaced.

Late Saturday afternoon on March 25, 1911, at the conclusion of the six-day workweek, the Triangle Shirtwaist workers were shutting down operations for the night as quitting time was drawing close. Suddenly, a fire broke out near a corner of the eighth floor, spreading quickly to the two higher floors. With a door to the fire escape locked, workers anxiously waited at the windows for rescue. When fire crews arrived they discovered their fire ladders were several stories too short and water pressure was insufficient for water from the hoses to reach that height. Terrified, some workers clung to one another; many, to the horror of onlookers and rescue workers, began leaping to their deaths. Workers on the tenth floor were able to get to the roof of the building and escaped over ladders placed by students across to a nearby New York University building. Almost 100 employees died inside the structure, while 47 jumped to their deaths from the eighth and ninth floors to escape the flames. In total 146 workers died and 70 were seriously injured.

The company owners were indicted on charges of criminal negligence, but were acquitted eight months later in a jury trial and assessed only a small fine. They later received $65,000 in insurance payments for property damage. The fire, regarded as one of the worst industrial tragedies in U.S. history, aroused public anger over management and government indifference to worker safety. Women's unionization activity escalated as the ILGWU stepped up efforts to improve sweatshop conditions. Effects on local and national politics were profound, beginning a 20 year effort to introduce industry reforms.

One eyewitness to the catastrophe was Frances Perkins (18801965), at the time a lobbyist for the New York Consumers League. Perkins came away from the tragic scene with even more determination to help workers. The State of New York created a special commission with Perkins as its chief investigator to probe into factors surrounding the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and industrial working conditions in general throughout the state. Three years later, in 1914, the commission issued its report calling for widespread changes. One piece of legislation, passed over stiff opposition from business management in the state, limited the workweek for women and children to 54 hours. Perkins also served as executive secretary of New York City's Committee on Safety influencing the passage of more stringent city building codes and factory inspection requirements. Perkins ultimately became the first woman Presidential Cabinet member in the United States as the Secretary of Labor for President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945). The only Cabinet member to serve all four terms of Roosevelt's presidency, Perkins was a key person behind the New Deal's socio-economic reforms. The tragic event in New York had triggered more intensive efforts through protective legislation to gain the right of workers to safe working conditions.

Topic overview

Suddenly, a fire broke out near a corner of the eighth floor, spreading quickly to the two higher floors. With a door to the fire escape locked, workers anxiously waited at the windows for rescue. When fire crews arrived they discovered their fire ladders were several stories too short and water pressure was insufficient for water from the hoses to reach that height. Terrified, some workers clung to one another; many, to the horror of onlookers and rescue workers, began leaping to their deaths.See also: Industrial Revolution, Women in the Workplace, Working Conditions in Factories


FURTHER READING

Lehrer, Susan. Origins of Protective Labor Legislation for Women, 19051925. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

McClymer, John F. The Triangle Strike and Fire. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.

McEvoy, Arthur F. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911: Social Change, Industrial Accidents, and the Evolution of Commonsense Causality. Chicago: American Bar Association, 1994.

Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. New York: Carroll and Graf/Quicksilver Book, 1962.

. Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy. New York: Quadrangle/New Times Book Company, 1977.

Tyler, Gus. Look for the Union Label: A History of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

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