Triangle Shirtwaist fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was one of the worst workplace disasters in American history. The disaster exposed the horrible working conditions of many immigrants and helped spur union organization and occupational safety laws.

Located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a typical turn-of-the-century sweatshop. Many of the employees were young female immigrants, primarily Russian Jews, Italians, Hungarians, and Germans. They worked long hours in dangerous working conditions for low wages. Shortly before the 4:45 p.m. closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the ten-story Asch Building where they worked. The company occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors.Triangle Shirtwaist fireSweatshops;Triangle Shirtwaist fireNew York City;Triangle Shirtwaist fireTriangle Shirtwaist fireSweatshops;Triangle Shirtwaist fireNew York City;Triangle Shirtwaist fire[cat]LABOR;Triangle Shirtwaist fire[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Triangle Shirtwaist fire

The fire rapidly spread throughout the building, and most of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape; many on the tenth floor made it safely to the roof, where they made their way to an ajoining building. Employees on the ninth floor, however, discovered that one of the two exits had been locked–a routine precaution management felt was necessary to keep employees from stealing from the company. The single fire escape quickly buckled and collapsed under the weight of the workers. One of the two elevators in the building was not operating, and the other elevator shaft was later found clogged with the bodies of thirty girls who had unsuccessfully tried to escape. Some workers waited for rescue workers, but the ladders and water hoses that were brought were too short to reach the upper floors. In desperation, some workers leapt from the ninth floor to their deaths. By time the fire was extinguished, about half an hour after it had started, an estimated 146 of the nearly 600 employees had died. Many had burned to death.

Following the tragedy, there was public outcry for reform of fire safety laws and working conditions. The fire led to increased support for labor unions, including the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union[International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union]International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, of which some Triangle Shirtwaist employees were members. At the end of April that year, the governor of New York appointed a Factory Investigating Commission to collect information and conduct hearings, resulting in important factory safety legislation.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were Harris, IsaacIsaac Harris and Blanck, MaxMax Blanck. Both men were in the building at the time the fire started but escaped. Blanck, his children, and his governess fled the area when the fire broke out. Although the building had experienced four fires before the 1911 disaster and had been reported by the city fire department as an unsafe workplace with insufficient exits, Blanck and Harris were acquitted of any wrongdoing in the disaster. Twenty-three families then filed civil suits against the owners. Two years after the fire, in March of 1913, Harris and Blanck settled the suits by paying settlements of only seventy-five dollars for each employee who had been killed.Triangle Shirtwaist fireSweatshops;Triangle Shirtwaist fireNew York City;Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Further Reading

  • De Angelis, Gina. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
  • Sherrow, Victoria. The Triangle Factory Fire. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1995.
  • Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.


Garment industry

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union

Labor unions

New York City


Women immigrants