Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The deaths of workers trapped in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sweatshop led to the investigation of hazardous working conditions and demands for regulation concerning workers’ safety.

Summary of Event

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building in New York City, which was located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street near Washington Square. The factory was very busy in 1911 manufacturing shirtwaists, the tailored blouses that, worn with plain skirts, had become part of a virtual uniform for the increasing numbers of white-collar women workers. Other occupants of the Asch Building worked five and one-half days each week, but Triangle demanded six-day workweeks of its six hundred mostly female workers. The building was thus otherwise unoccupied when Triangle workers prepared to leave work at about 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911. Disasters;fires Workplace safety;manufacturing Manufacturing;disasters Women;workplace safety Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire Fires;Triangle Shirtwaist Factory [kw]Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (Mar. 25, 1911) [kw]Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Triangle (Mar. 25, 1911) [kw]Factory Fire, Triangle Shirtwaist (Mar. 25, 1911) [kw]Fire, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (Mar. 25, 1911) Disasters;fires Workplace safety;manufacturing Manufacturing;disasters Women;workplace safety Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire Fires;Triangle Shirtwaist Factory [g]United States;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] [c]Disasters;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] [c]Business and labor;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] [c]Women’s issues;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Mar. 25, 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire[02760] Perkins, Frances Wagner, Robert F. Smith, Alfred E. Dreier, Mary Schneiderman, Rose Asch, Joseph J. Blanck, Max Harris, Isaac

On the way to two narrow exits on the eighth floor where they were routinely checked for theft before they left the factory, workers smelled fire and saw flames in rag bins under worktables. The fire quickly spread to clotheslines holding sewing patterns above the tables. Someone located a fire hose, but it was rotten, and valves controlling the water supply had rusted. The freight elevator was barred, and two other small elevators could hold no more than a dozen passengers at a time. As burning and terrified women jumped down elevator shafts onto the tops of the cars, these two elevators were forced to quit running. Women jammed the two narrow staircases, each of which allowed the passage of no more than one person at a time. The crowds made it difficult to open the doors to the stairs, which were probably locked; the doors, in any case, opened inward. Someone telephoned the tenth floor, where all but one worker in the executive offices and the pressing, packing, and shipping rooms survived, but no one was able to reach the ninth floor.

Below on the street, a crowd estimated at twenty thousand gathered and watched as what spectators first thought were flaming rags hurtled from the building. These were burning women and girls, some perhaps as young as ten, who threw themselves from the windows. Sometimes several leaped together, embracing one another as they fell. In the rear courtyard of the building, masses jammed a fire escape that ended at the second floor with a drop onto a glass skylight. The heat and crowds caused the fire escape to detach from the building, dumping victims through the glass skylight or onto the spikes of an iron fence below.

The most modern available fire technology was used to fight the blaze, including the New York Fire Department’s first motorized units, but the water towers could reach only to the seventh floor. Ladders could not reach higher than the sixth floor. The horses used to draw most of the equipment became unmanageable because of the burning bodies falling around and on them and the blood running in the streets. Falling bodies sometimes covered the fire hoses, impeding the firemen’s work. Victims, jumping more than one at a time, broke through the safety nets spread for them and died on the streets. The fire, however, was quickly controlled. The walls and floors of the structure sustained little damage, but deaths in the disaster, probably numbering 146, have been estimated as high as 154. Most victims were young women immigrants, many supporting families in New York or Italy.

Reaction to the fire was vigorous, because both fire officials and union leaders had predicted that such a disaster was likely to occur. As New York land values had increased, buildings had been erected to heights beyond those accessible to firefighting equipment. The New York Woman’s Trade Union League Woman’s Trade Union League[Womans Trade Union League] (WTUL) had reported that about half of New York’s garment workers were employed above the seventh floor, although fire officials had warned that equipment could not fight fires above that level. Fire officials had also warned against the omission of a sprinkler system when the Asch Building was completed in 1901; the owner, Joseph J. Asch, defended the building as meeting the existing fire code and successfully resisted adding such a system, which would have increased the building’s $400,000 cost by $5,000. He also defended the fire escape as the mandatory third exit, although the escape did not extend to the ground. In 1909, when the building’s insurance coverage was increased, a consultant had urged that New York fire-protection expert H. F. J. Porter be called in to organize fire drills. Porter’s letter offering his services was never answered. Three weeks before the fire, in fact, the Protective League of Property Owners met to protest the extra costs of implementing fire officials’ recommendations, although a November, 1910, fire in Newark, New Jersey, had cost the lives of twenty-five factory workers. Moreover, firemen had been called to the Triangle factory twice in 1902 and once each in 1905, 1908, and 1909.

Working conditions had been part of the reason for a 1909-1910 strike by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union[International Ladies Garment Workers Union] (ILGWU). At the time of the strike, more than thirty thousand workers were employed in some five hundred shirtwaist factories; by February 15, 1910, when the strike was officially called off, workers in some three hundred factories had been guaranteed better working conditions. Triangle employees, however, returned to work without a union agreement, largely because of the company’s successful use of strikebreakers and also because of its policy of dismissing women who joined the ILGWU. Demands by Triangle workers that doors to exits be kept unlocked and that a functional fire escape be installed were never discussed with the company. A newspaper reporter who entered the factory the day after the 1911 fire found no hoses attached to the standpipe system, no couplings that would have allowed the use of hoses, and doors that blocked access to this system.

Significance

The public’s immediate reactions to the disaster were emotional. Crowds massed around a temporary morgue that had been set up at the East 26th Street pier. Protest meetings were held throughout the city; at one, held at Grand Central Palace, the crowd heard demands to blow up City Hall. Show business figures, including Al Jolson and George M. Cohan, scheduled charity performances to help fire victims and their families; some who were themselves products of the tenements, such as comedian Jimmy Durante, had lost relatives in the blaze. To reduce public displays, officials planned a private funeral for the seven or eight victims who remained unidentified, but despite their efforts, a citywide mourning procession occurred that involved an estimated 120,000 marchers and 400,000 spectators. Reactions were further inflamed when, after a long-delayed trial, Triangle factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were acquitted of manslaughter charges.

The matter might have ended in disregarded resolutions passed by protest groups had not the WTUL, led by Mary Dreier, held a memorial meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, rented for the league by socialite Anne Morgan. Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);memorial for Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire victims This meeting, which brought together uneducated immigrant workers, reformers, and social and charitable leaders, threatened to end in disorder, as working-class women jeered at the resolutions urged by leaders. Polish immigrant Rose Schneiderman united the discordant factions when she tearfully spoke to the crowd of her own sweatshop experience and the loss of life and health she had seen.

In response to this united public pressure, the New York state legislature appointed a factory investigating commission. New York State Factory Investigating Commission State Senator Robert F. Wagner chaired the commission, with Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith as vice chairman. New York WTUL president Dreier, a wealthy woman who had walked the 1909 picket lines and been arrested, was appointed to the commission. Schneiderman was made an inspector, and Frances Perkins, then secretary of the New York Consumers’ League, was made an investigator. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, was also appointed as a commission member. Consultants included Dr. George M. Price and fire expert H. F. J. Porter; Price had reported to the Joint Board of Sanitary Control on dangers in the garment factories a few days before the Triangle fire. The commission held its first session on October 14, 1911. Within a year, it had heard testimony from 222 witnesses and had inspected 1,836 New York State industries.

The commission’s work led to what has been called a golden age of industrial reform. Industrial reform legislation In four years, the commission was responsible for thirty-six new laws in the state labor code, including the most rigorous fire-protection legislation in the United States. In her autobiographical The Roosevelt I Knew (1946), Perkins recorded that commission members who were committed to reform forced less-committed legislators to crawl through holes that had been identified as exits and to witness children as young as five at work in the factories. After legislation was passed, Schneiderman and other WTUL leaders organized twice-daily open-air meetings to inform factory and store workers about the new laws and to encourage them to report violations.

Their work on the commission brought attention to both Robert F. Wagner and Al Smith. Wagner was responsible for New York’s first workers’ compensation law, and the exposure he received as head of the commission helped him win election in 1927 to the U.S. Senate, where he consistently supported legislation to protect workers and the unemployed. After the 1932 election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wagner was instrumental in obtaining passage of the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. He was also the force behind the Wagner Act of 1937, which created the U.S. Housing Authority, and he helped draft several other New Deal measures, including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration bill. Smith remained in the New York State Assembly until 1915, later becoming sheriff of New York County, president of the New York City Board of Aldermen, a four-time governor of New York, and the first working-class Irish Catholic candidate for the U.S. presidency, achieving popularity especially among the immigrant working poor.

Aroused by her memory of Triangle women praying on window ledges before jumping to their deaths, Perkins worked for passage of a fifty-four-hour workweek bill in 1912, which she achieved with Smith’s cooperation. She became the first woman member of New York State Industrial Commission New York State Industrial Commission following Smith’s election as governor in 1918. She reorganized the Factory Inspection Division, going out personally to settle strikes, and was in charge of the Bureau of Mediation and Arbitration. She returned to this post in 1922, having in the interim served as executive secretary of the Council on Immigrant Education. On the Industrial Commission, she administered the Workmen’s Compensation Act. In 1926, Smith appointed Perkins industrial commissioner of the state, an office she also held under Franklin D. Roosevelt during his two terms as governor. Despite powerful opposition to the appointment of a woman, she held the cabinet post of secretary of labor under President Roosevelt, and she helped to draft much social legislation.

Mary Dreier and Rose Schneiderman were the most important leaders of the WTUL for thirty-five years. Schneiderman was instrumental in the successful organizing drives of the ILGWU from 1909 to 1914, a success spurred by the deaths in the Triangle fire. She became a national organizer until she questioned the union’s commitment to women workers. She later became a suffrage leader and a New York Labor Party candidate for U.S. senator. She helped to organize the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, which opened in 1921. Under Roosevelt, she was appointed to the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration. Dreier became chair of New York City’s Woman Suffrage Party and remained active in the WTUL until 1950.

In 1961, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an observance was held to commemorate the victims. Speaking at the ceremony, Perkins noted that the fire had awakened the national conscience, leading to the unprecedented labor legislation of the next several decades. Disasters;fires Workplace safety;manufacturing Manufacturing;disasters Women;workplace safety Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire Fires;Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877-Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Concise and comprehensive history of the American labor movement. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Backes, Nancy. “The Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy.” In Great Fires of America. Waukesha, Wis.: Home Library, 1973. An illustrated history of major U.S. fires. Not a comprehensive discussion of the fire, but places the Triangle disaster in the context of the great fires that were a constant hazard of American life, especially urban life, until their number and intensity were reduced by modern fire technology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, Hal. “New York’s Triangle Tragedy.” In Inferno! Fourteen Fiery Tragedies of Our Time. 1975. Reprint. New York: Dorset Press, 1990. Describes the Triangle fire in vivid detail, citing eyewitness reports.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crute, Sheree. “The Insurance Scandal Behind the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.” Ms. 11 (April, 1983): 81-83. Discusses the profits made from the fire by the factory owners. Includes an interview with Pauline Newman, a labor union activist who began working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company when she was ten years of age. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: The Men, Equipment, and Machines from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1977. Focuses on firefighting equipment, much of which is illustrated. Chapter titled “The Triangle Firetrap” describes the fire’s consequences in terms of prevention and inspection measures. Includes an excellent bibliography on disasters as viewed from this perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitelman, Bonnie. “Rose Schneiderman and the Triangle Fire.” American History Illustrated 16 (July, 1981): 38-47. Profusely illustrated account of the fire includes the text of a speech given days after the disaster by labor union activist Schneiderman, whose impassioned call for action stirred many to demand reform legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Focuses on the lives of Rose Schneiderman and three other female Jewish immigrant labor organizers to describe the history of women’s involvement in American working-class movements. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneiderman, Rose. All for One. Edited by Lucy Goldthwaite. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1967. Schneiderman’s own story of her fifty years in the labor movement. Chapter 10 details the Triangle fire and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. 1962. Reprint. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Comprehensive, well-written, and moving account makes excellent use of trial records, newspaper stories, and interviews with survivors, among other sources. Stein, a union member and editor of a union publication, tends to be sympathetic toward the factory workers rather than objective. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003. Draws on newspaper articles, interviews, and trial transcripts to place the fire within the context of labor conditions of the time. Includes photographs, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wertheimer, Barbara Mayer. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Narrative history of American working women from precolonial times to the mid-twentieth century. Presents valuable material on the significant developments in the labor movement and the influential women connected with it. Of particular relevance to the Triangle tragedy are chapters titled “Working Women in the National Women’s Trade Union League: 1903-1914” and “The Rise of the Woman Garment Worker: 1909-1910.” Includes many illustrations, extensive notes, and annotated bibliography.

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