The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

In March of 1911, the nation was shocked by what would prove to be one of the worst workplace disasters in United States history. The disaster was even more tragic because many of those who died were young women just on the cusp of adulthood—some were as young as 14.

Employees at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company (a shirtwaist was a woman’s blouse) were like many factory workers in the early twentieth century. They worked long hours—usually, 7 AM to 8 PM, seven days a week, and their wages were absurdly low. A week’s work earned them roughly $6. In some instances, they were required to use their own needles and thread and occasionally their own sewing machines. Although the factory was located on the Asch Building’s upper floors, which was considered a modern, fire-proof building, the factory was crowded and unsanitary. To keep the women from taking unauthorized bathroom or smoking breaks, the doors were locked from the outside by management. The owners were staunchly anti-union, and the closed doors also served to keep union organizers from entering the factory. Aside from a half-hour lunch break, the Triangle factory women were locked inside the building for virtually the entire day.

The young women at the Triangle factory were well-known in New York City. Along with thousands of other women in the garment trades, they went on strike in 1909 in what became known as the Uprising of the 20,000. Workers from many of the city’s biggest garment manufacturers walked out, demanding a 20 percent pay increase, a 52-hour workweek, and overtime pay. It was a remarkable event, with thousands of young women taking to New York City streets. The strike was widely covered in newspapers and garnered the support of several wealthy suffragists. The involvement of some of the city’s wealthiest society matrons, in turn, generated still more attention for the strikers.

The strike went on for eleven weeks. During that time, hundreds of women were arrested and sent to workhouses, and police injured many others. Eventually, some of the manufacturers agreed to some of the workers’ demands. But a handful of the biggest ones, including Triangle, remained intransigent on the issue of allowing a union agreement. Workers at the factory were paid a higher wage as a result of the strike. Still, some of their demands—including that factory doors be left unlocked and that repairs be made to poorly maintained fire escapes—were ignored.

On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire started on the Asch Building’s eighth floor. Workers were able to alert employees on the tenth floor by telephone but had no way to reach the women on the ninth floor. There was also no fire alarm that they could access. Many of the women on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape via the stairwell or the elevator. Still, the ninth-floor workers knew nothing about the fire until it reached their floor, at which point they had few options for escape.

The Asch Building sat around the corner from Washington Square Park, where New Yorkers were enjoying a bit of sun on a cold winter Saturday. In a tragic irony, one of the Triangle workers’ demands in 1909, which was not met, was a shorter week, which would have allowed them to leave at noon on Saturdays. On this Saturday, at roughly 4:30 in the afternoon, the Triangle workers—approximately 500 of them—were still at work, a half-hour from the end of the workday. Seeing smoke coming from the building’s upper floors, people in the park began to ring alarm bells in fireboxes.

To the horror of bystanders on the street, women on the ninth floor—where the doors had been locked—began jumping to the street below. Fire engine ladders could not reach that high, and with no way out, many of the women chose to jump to almost certain death rather than be burned alive. Firemen on the street used nets to save as many of the jumpers as possible, but their nets proved useless. Several of the women made their way to the rickety fire escape, which collapsed under their weight. Onlookers wept as more women made their way to the windows and jumped, some of them burning as they fell. In the space of fifteen minutes, 146 people died, the majority of whom were young immigrant women. Rescuers took the dead’s burned, mangled bodies to a New York City pier where families (or the morbidly curious) could come and try to identify their loved ones. Six of the bodies were so severely damaged that they would remain unidentified until 2011.

In the fire’s aftermath, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were charged with manslaughter but acquitted. Three years later, they were ordered to pay damages of $75 to the families of twenty-three victims who sued the owners. Across the country, and particularly in New York, there was a sense of collective outrage at the conditions that contributed to the tragedy. The state passed thirty-eight new laws intended to improve working conditions, such as mandating that buildings improve fire safety measures. Among the reforms that resulted from the fire were exit doors that opened outward and fire sprinklers. Though they began in New York, such protections were eventually adopted by businesses and public facilities across the country.

The fire was a pivotal event in the lives of several people who would go on to long careers as public servants. Progressive reformer Robert F. Wagner, who helped to pass some of the new safety and labor laws, would become a US Senator from New York from 1927 to 1949. Frances Perkins, who was in Washington Square Park on the day of the fire and would become the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet (as Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt), would later say of the disaster that “the New Deal was born that day.” Perkins, then a workers’ rights advocate, worked with the Factory Investigating Commission, an agency created in response to the tragedy. Organized labor also grew, with numerous labor leaders pushing for justice for the Triangle victims. The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union grew from a relatively small union to tens of thousands of members. In New York City, union membership across all trades grew eightfold. A small plaque on the Asch Building (now the Brown Building and part of New York University) memorializes the young women who died there.