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.
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.
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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 women—mostly 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
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.
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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.
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.
"Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/triangle-shirtwaist-fire
"Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/triangle-shirtwaist-fire
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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 (1880–1965), 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 (1933–1945). 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.
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
Lehrer, Susan. Origins of Protective Labor Legislation for Women, 1905–1925. 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.
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.
"Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-fire
"Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-fire
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire
Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire
"Thrilling Incidents in Gotham Holocaust That Wiped Out One Hundred and Fifty Lives"
Originally published in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 26, 1911; available at The Triangle Factory Fire (Web site)
"A 13 year old girl hung for three minutes by her finger tips to the sill of a tenth floor window. A tongue of flame licked at her fingers and she dropped into a life net held by firemen."
The Manhattan building owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris at 23–29 Washington Place in New York City was also known as the Asch building. The Asch building was the equivalent of a twenty-first century office building. The owners rented floors of the ten-story building to various businesses. These businesses, in turn, hired workers to make whatever products the companies sold.
One of the businesses housed in the Asch building was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company (also sometimes referred to as the Triangle Waist Company). Shirtwaist referred to a type of blouse worn by women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was white, with a tight waist, buttons down the front, and puffy sleeves. Although there were about five hundred shirtwaist factories in New York alone, the Triangle Company was the largest. The company employed around five hundred workers, most of them Italian and European Jewish girls and women. All five hundred employees were stuffed onto three floors: the eighth, ninth, and tenth. Blanck and Harris were the principal owners of the Triangle Company.
Although wages and working conditions were less than decent, the Triangle workers—mostly immigrants—were glad to have a job. The work day began at 7:30 am and lasted until 9 o'clock in the evening during busy season. Normal work days ended around 4:45 pm. There was no such thing as overtime pay, and employees were not given any money to buy themselves dinner. Wages ranged from $1.50 a week for simpler work to $22 (an astronomical amount) a week for cutters, the men who actually cut the patterns used to make all the shirtwaists. The average weekly pay was $6–7.
The Asch building was a perfect example of the hundreds of other sweatshops (factories that provided inhumane working conditions and employee treatment) found throughout America's industrial regions during the turn of the century. In order to fit the greatest number of people into the building, machinery and equipment were placed in such a way that movement throughout the rooms or floors was dangerously limited. Ventilation (fresh air) in those buildings was poor. The overcrowded conditions made working not only difficult but unsafe.
In addition to the unsafe working conditions and low wages, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company mistreated its workers. One young worker, Pauline Newman, described her experience in the shop in the book American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It:
They were the kind of employers who didn't recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren't allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished [scolded]. If you'd keep on, you'd be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked.
In 1909, shirtwaist factory workers throughout New York gathered in protest of the poor working conditions and treatment as well as the unfair wages paid by their employers. Another of their demands was the recognition of a labor union (a formal organization that protects the rights of workers). Although many factories negotiated with workers to reach an agreement, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company did not, and workers were forced to return to the same dismal conditions against which they protested. If they chose not to return, someone else would quickly take over their jobs. By 1900, three-fourths of the 236,000 jobs in New York's garment industry were occupied by Jews, and 60 percent of the Jewish population was employed in the garment industry.
Labor Unions and the Garment Industry
The strike (when workers refuse to do their jobs until their demands for better conditions are met) in 1909 was called the "Uprising of the 20,000." Although working conditions in factories of any industry were pitiful, the shirtwaist industry proved particularly bad. Companies in that industry hired workers on an as-needed basis, so when the busy season passed, many lost their jobs. There was no job security. On top of that, workers were forced to buy their own equipment, and sewing machinery was expensive. Paychecks, too, as small as they were, were often short (less than they should have been).
In 1909, 150 women employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were fired because they were members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, the Women's Trade Union League, or both. These unions provided protection for female workers and, when necessary, fought on their behalf for more favorable wages and working conditions. Most factory owners hated labor unions because they forced the owners to pay decent wages and provide safer working conditions, which in turn took away from owners' profits. To join a labor union at the turn of the century was a good idea on the one hand but rather dangerous on the other, since no laws prohibited employers from firing workers for joining unions.
The "Uprising of the 20,000" was the first major labor strike in America led by women for women. Although 339 shops settled with the unions, the terms they agreed to were not nearly as good as the workers had hoped they would be. The strike was still considered a victory for the unions. It proved women to be as capable as men in the role of trade unionists.
Union leaders of the 1909 strike noted that Jewish women were often more committed to the movement than were their Italian counterparts, perhaps largely due to events in Russia within the past thirty years. By the time of the strike, Russian Jews were New York's largest immigrant group. They fled Russia beginning in 1882, when the czar (ruler) passed anti-Semitic (anti-Jew) laws and authorized pogroms (organized violence against Jews). Those who did not leave revolted in 1905, but the revolution failed.
These events led to a surge in immigration of Russian Jews with socialist beliefs. Socialism is the belief that everything should be publicly owned and distributed so that everyone gets the same amount of wealth in the form of products and services. In theory, poverty would not exist under socialism. In reality, that has not historically been true, as seen in Communist Russia. But a fundamental belief of socialism is in the power of the people who work together for a cause. As a result, Jewish workers were more likely to join labor unions than other immigrant groups. They understood that they had more power in numbers than if they worked alone.
One of the victories claimed by the 339 shops that settled the strike was the 54-hour workweek. Since the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had not agreed to that new ruling, the employees of the shop were the only workers in the Asch building at 4:45 pm on Saturday, March 25, 1911. A fire broke out in a bin of rags belonging to a cutter on the eighth floor of the shop. Within moments, the entire floor was ablaze, and manager Samuel Bernstein attempted to extinguish the flames with buckets of water. His efforts would prove useless, since there were only twenty-seven buckets of water on hand, and the fire spread quickly due to the amount of fabric, sewing pattern papers, and other explosive flammables in the shop. Within minutes, the wood floor and ceiling were engulfed in deadly flames.
A clerk dragged a water hose into the shop, but when the faucet was turned on, no water came out. The owners of the building had it shut off to save money. Most employees on the eighth floor escaped the blaze by crawling out the window to the fire escape or by taking the passenger elevator. The elevator quit working almost immediately, thus leaving those employees on the ninth and tenth floor without a passage to safety.
Those workers on the tenth floor were able to reach the rooftop despite the panic and chaos. Professor Frank Sommer was teaching his class at the New York University Law School in the building next door when he saw dozens of workers from the Triangle Company running around on the rooftop fifteen feet below. The professor and his students found ladders and placed them so that the escaping workers could crawl to safety on the school roof. Approximately seventy workers had been trapped on that tenth floor, and all but one survived.
Ninth-floor workers were not so lucky. Without a fire escape or a door to lead them to safety, these victims had two choices: perish in the blaze, or jump out the window.
Things to remember while reading the
Chicago Sunday Tribune article:
- Very few of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees could speak English.
- The building itself was fireproof and built to legal standards of the day.
- Working women were viewed as a threat by working men, who believed women stole jobs from them. They were also seen as inferior by middle-class women, who believed a woman's place was in the home. They had to struggle for acceptance by nearly every other social group in America in the early 1900s.
Chicago Sunday Tribune article
reporting on the Triangle Shirtwaist
In the office buildings across Washington place scores of men detained beyond office hours worked at their desks. One of them saw a girl rush to a window and throw up the sash. Behind her dashed a seething curtain of yellow flame.
She climbed to the sill, stood in black outline against the light, hesitating, then, with a last touch of futile thrift, slipped her chatelaine bag over her wrist and jumped. Her body went whirling downward through the woven wire glass of a canopy to the flagging below.
Her sisters who followed, flamed through the air like rockets. Their path could be followed but hardly heard.
It was eighty-five feet from the eighth floor to the ground, about ninety-five feet from ninth floor, 113 feet from the cornice of the roof, and the upward rush of a draft and the crackle of the flames drowned their cries.
"Jimmy" Lehan, a traffic squad policeman, dashed up eight flights of stairs when the fire was at its height, braced his shoulders against a barred door, and burst it in. He found a score of girls made with fright. He ordered them down the smoke filled stairways, but they balked. He used his club, and beat them down to safety. Not one of the number perished.
A boy who jumped from one of the upper floors was caught by a policeman who braced himself and held the youngster, practically uninjured, although both fell to the street.
Six girls fought their way to a window on the ninth floor over the bodies of fallen fellow workers and crawled out in a single file to an eight inch stone ledge running the length of the building.
More than a hundred feet above the sidewalk they crept along their perilous pathway to a swinging electric feed wire spanning Washington place.
The leaders paused for their companions to catch up at the end of the ledge and the six grabbed the wire simultaneously. It snapped like rotten whipcord and they crashed down to death.
A 13 year old girl hung for three minutes by her finger tips to the sill of a tenth floor window. A tongue of flame licked at her fingers and she dropped into a life net held by firemen. Two women fell into the net at almost the same moment. The strands parted and the two were added to the death list.
A girl threw her pocketbook, then her hat, then her furs from a tenth floor window. A moment later her body came whirling after them to death.
At a ninth floor window a man and a woman appeared. The man embraced the woman and kissed her. Then he hurled her to the street and jumped. Both were killed.
Five girls smashed a pane of glass, dropped in a struggling tangle and were crushed into a shapeless mass.
A girl on the eighth floor leaped for a firemen's ladder which reached only to the sixth floor. She missed, struck the edge of a life net, and was picked up with her back broken.
From one window a girl of about 13 years, a woman, a man, and two women with their arms about one another threw themselves to the ground in rapid succession. The little girl was whirled to the New York hospital in an automobile.
She screamed as the driver and policeman lifted her into the hallway. A surgeon came out, gave one look at her face and touched her wrist. "She is dead," he said.
One girl jumped into a horse blanket held by the firemen and the policemen. The blanket ripped like cheesecloth and her body was mangled almost beyond recognition.
Another dropped into a tarpaulin held by three men. Her weight tore it from their grasp and she struck the street, breaking almost every bone in her body.
Almost at the same time a man somersaulted down upon the shoulder of a policeman holding the tarpaulin. He glanced off, struck the sidewalk, and was picked up dead.
Within the building a man on the eighth floor stationed himself at the door of one of the elevators and with a club kept back the girls who had stampeded to the wire cages. Thirty were admitted to the car at a time. They were rushed down as fast as possible.
The call for ambulances was followed by successive appeals for police until 500 patrolmen arrived to cope with a crowd numbering tens of thousands [in] a mixture of the morbidly curious and of half crazed relatives and friends of the victims. A hundred mounted policemen had to charge the crowd repeatedly to keep it back.
Led by Fire Chief [Edward] Croker, a squad of firemen stormed the stairways and gained access to the building at 7 o'clock. Two searchlights from buildings opposite lighted the way of the fire fighters as they ascended to the top floors.
Fifty roasted bodies were found on the ninth floor. They lay in every possible posture, some so charred that recognition was impossible. A half dozen were nude, with the flesh hanging in shreds to the bones.
Women with their hair burned away, with here and there a limb burned entirely off, and the charred stump visible, were lifted tenderly from the debris, wrapped in oilcloth, and lowered by pulleys to the street.
Across the street there rested on the sidewalk a hundred pine coffins, into which were placed the bodies. As fast as this was done the coffins were carried away in a kind of vehicle that could be pressed into service to the morgue at Bellevue hospital and to the Charities Pier morgue, opened for the first time since the Slocum horror.
One of the first physicians on the scene was Dr. Ralph A. Froelich, 119 Waverley Place. He saw most of the girls jump to the street and as each one fell he rushed to her side and administered hypodermic injections to deaden the pain. He treated twelve of the victims, whom he found still breathing, but each died within a short time.
What happened next …
The Triangle fire was brought under control in just eighteen minutes, and within ten more, it was completely put out. But by that time, 146 of the company's 500 employees had died either in the blaze or by jumping out of the ninth-floor windows. Although there are many eyewitness reports of girls willingly, if not reluctantly, jumping off window ledges, the fact remains that in the initial panic that ensued as the announcement of "Fire!" reached the ninth floor, a large portion of those jumpers were actually pushed to their deaths by frightened workers trapped in the room behind them.
When firefighters searched the fire-damaged floors of the Asch building in hopes of finding survivors, what they found instead were more bodies. One survivor was eventually found, trapped in the elevator shaft, hovering above a pile of about twenty-five corpses. Fifty more bodies were found lying on the floor of the eighth story alone.
Pine coffins were delivered to the scene of the fire so that bodies could be removed from the pavement. About one-third of the victims were identified by the end of the night; the rest would be identified, where possible, within the next couple days. For those bodies burned beyond recognition, loved ones used other means of identification: a piece of jewelry, a hair comb, a repair in a shoe. One mother identified her daughter by a stocking that had recently been repaired. She recognized the stitching and the location of the mending.
Concern was growing about health and safety in factories and other urban buildings in the early twentieth century. Within weeks of the Triangle fire, union members and concerned citizens alike joined together in protest, demanding that someone be held accountable for the deadliest disaster to strike since the Industrial Revolution began. Additionally, they wanted factory conditions to change. Some of the wealthiest women in the world came to the aid of the strikers and the families of the victims who wanted justice. They offered money, time, and something the other concerned citizens did not have—connections to powerful people. They brought to the cause a level of publicity and public interest it otherwise would have lacked. The two women's unions organized a funeral march on April 5, and an estimated 120,000 people joined in the march.
Within two days of the fire, city officials began offering early conclusions as to the reasons for the tragedy. The fire marshal believed the fire began when a lighted match was thrown into a bin of rags under cutting table Number Two on the eighth floor. Fire investigators found many cigarette cases near the spot of the fire's origin despite the company's no-smoking policy in the factory. Workers reported that smoking in the building was common, especially among the cutters, who were highly skilled and allowed to do most anything they wanted in an effort to keep them happy on the job. Fire Chief Edward Croker announced that the doors leading into the factory workplace had indeed been locked, even though workers were still inside. This was a common practice at the Triangle Company. Blanck and Harris insisted the precautionary measure was necessary to keep from being robbed by their employees.
Although the building itself had been built to legal standards at the time of its construction, eleven years had passed and it had not been inspected since. Building officials claimed their department was under-staffed and underfunded and was not able to keep up with any inspections of buildings other than those being built.
The public's anger was mostly directed at company and building owners Blanck and Harris. Called the "shirtwaist kings," the two men got the most out of their employees, crowding 240 sewing machines onto one floor alone. Two weeks after the fire, the men were indicted on charges of manslaughter (accidental but unlawful killing of others).
The prosecutor (lawyer filing the charges) brought 103 witnesses to the stand. They all testified that it was company policy to keep doors locked for various reasons, but mostly, to keep employees from stealing shirtwaists. The defense countered with 52 witnesses, mostly salesmen, painters, and others who had cause to go onto the ninth floor. These witnesses claimed the doors were always open, although none of them had been there at the time of the fire.
After two hours of discussion, the jury found the building owners not guilty. Although the jurors believed the doors had likely been locked at the time of the fire, there was no way to prove the owners knew they were locked.
Three years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits (lawsuits seeking damages under the laws established by a state or a country) against Blanck and Harris were settled. They paid an average of $75 for each life lost to those twenty-three families. The public was furious, and the general outrage led to the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission. The Commission's job was to thoroughly examine New York factories for safety and working conditions. Their findings led to the passage of more legislation than ever before known to the labor industry. Between 1911 and 1914, thirty-six reform factory codes were passed. Some of the new requirements were sprinkler systems, outward-opening doors, fire drills, and regular building inspections. Furthermore, the tragedy helped America understand and appreciate the role of labor unions. Labor union organizing in factories became increasingly successful.
Did you know …
- The water from the fire hoses that ran into the gutters was red with the blood of Triangle victims.
- Three men made a human chain that bridged the gap between the rooftop of the Asch building and another next door. Many survivors climbed across that chain to safety before the weight of the human burden broke the back of one of the men and several would-be survivors fell to their deaths below.
- The fire was the beginning of the end of business for partners Blanck and Harris. Blanck would continue to run a garment factory on his own. Years later, he would again be accused of locking employees into the factory during work hours. He would be found guilty this time and fined $20. The judge who delivered the sentence apologized for having to fine him at all.
Consider the following …
- Imagine you are a fifteen-year-old immigrant caught in the fire. You do not speak or understand much English. What would be your first move upon learning of the fire?
- You are the brother or the sister of a victim of the fire. What is your reaction upon learning the owners of the building go free, but that the tragedy results in the passage of major industrial reform?
- You happened to be on the street as the first women jumped through the windows. What would you do?
For More Information
Auch, Mary Jane. Ashes of Roses. New York: H. Holt, 2002.
DeAngelis, Gina. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
Landau, Elaine. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. New York: Children's Press, 2005.
Morrison, Joan, and Charlotte Fox Zabusky. American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It. New York: Dutton, 1980. Reprint, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.
Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962. Reprint, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.
"Thrilling Incidents in Gotham Holocaust That Wiped Out One Hundred andFifty Lives" Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 28, 1911, p. 2.
"Big Apple History: The Triangle Tragedy." PBSKids.org.http://pbskids.org/bigapplehistory/life/topic13.html (accessed on August 15, 2006).
Leung, Alison. "Photos from the Triangle Factory Fire." University of Sydney.http://teaching.arts.usyd.edu.au/history/hsty3080/3rdYr3080/trianglewebsite/index.html (accessed on August 15, 2006).
Library of Congress. "American Jewish Women." American Memory: American Women.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awas12/jewish.html (accessed on August 15, 2006).
Linder, Douglas. "The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial, 1911." University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/triangle/trianglefire.html (accessed on August 15, 2006).
Newman, Pauline, and Joan Morrison. "Working for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company." History Matters.http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/178/ (accessed on August 15, 2006).
"A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860–1960." Yeshiva University Museum.http://www.yumuseum.org/APerfectFit/highlights.html (accessed on August 15, 2006).
- Large numbers.
- Window frame.
- Violently moving.
- Futile thrift:
- Useless caution.
- Chatelaine bag:
- A bag worn at the waist, similar to a purse.
- Protective, rooflike covering mounted on a frame over a walkway.
- Molding that frames the edge of a roof and hangs over the sides of a building.
- Sudden current of air.
- Beat them down:
- Cleared a path.
- At the same time.
- Strong, braided cord.
- Rapid succession:
- Quickly, one after the other.
- Loosely woven cotton gauze.
- Waterproof canvas.
- Fabric treated with oil to make it waterproof.
- A place where bodies of the dead are kept until identified.
- Slocum horror:
- A 1904 tragedy in which a steamboat called General Slocum burst into flames on New York City's East River, killing around one thousand people, mostly women and children.
- Hypodermic injections:
- Shots given just below the skin.
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Gilded Age and Progressive Era Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire
"Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire." Gilded Age and Progressive Era Reference Library. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/triangle-shirtwaist-company-fire