The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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Podcast Transcript

On March 25, 1911, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history took place. 

In the middle of Manhattan, a fire broke out in a garment factory that killed 146 people. 

Most of the deaths were totally preventable, and the legacy of that incident had repercussions that still exist today.

Learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and its legacy, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get started talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, I probably need to explain exactly what a shirtwaist is, because it isn’t a word that most people are familiar with anymore. 

A shirtwaist was a woman’s garment which was a type of blouse, with elements taken from men’s shirts such as cuffs and a collar. A “waist” was a general term for a women’s top, which is a use of the word which is no longer used today.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shirtwaists were worn by most women of that era. If you see any photos of women from this period, such as suffragettes, they are most probably wearing a shirtwaist. 

With that being said, Manhattan was a very different place 110 years ago. Today it is almost entirely residential and white-collar businesses. Back then, it was a hotbed of industrial activity. 

Newly arrived immigrants could get work, albeit low-paying work, in any number of factories in Manhattan. 

Garment factories were popular places for young immigrant women to find work. These factories were much better known as sweatshops.

The Triangle Waist Company was founded in 1900 by two Russian Jewish immigrants, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, who became known as the “shirtwaist kings”.

The women’s shirtwaist business was a huge industry. Ready-made, off-the-rack clothing, became popular with women who were just beginning to enter the workforce. 

The Triangle factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of what was then known as the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. 

The building, especially the upper levels, was not designed to be a factory. It was originally built to be a warehouse. The space used by the Triangle shirtwaist company took up about 27,000 square feet. 

The workers in the factory were almost exclusively girls and young women, some as young as 14. The workers were also almost all recent Italian and Jewish immigrants. There were approximately 500 who worked there. 

They would have to work 13 hour days with very few breaks. They were also discouraged from talking or singing during their shift. 

The average worker made about $6 to $12 per week or the equivalent of about $175 to $350 a week in current dollars. 

The factory was subject to a strike in 1909 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Many of the garment factories in New York recognized the union, but the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory held out.

The shop floor was filled with wooden benches, fabric, and fabric dust which was everywhere. 

The event in question occurred on March 25, 1911, at 4 pm local time. 

From what we know from eyewitness accounts, the fire broke out in the northeast corner of the factory on the 8th floor. The cause is unknown, but many people in hindsight think it might have been caused by a cigarette from a cutter.

The cutters in the factory were exclusively men. They were responsible for cutting the cloth, and there would have been a large bundle of scraps under their table as the workday was ending and the bins hadn’t been emptied yet.

The cutters would sometimes be known to smoke while working even though smoking was not allowed anywhere in the factory. At that time, very few women smoked.

The entire factory was a giant tinderbox. Almost literally. The fabric and the dust from the fabric was everywhere 

At 4:45 pm, within five minutes of the fire starting, the fire department was notified by passersby on the street who saw smoke coming from the 8th-floor window. 

The workers inside the factory immediately tried to flee when they saw the smoke and flames, but there was a problem. All of the doors, save for one, were locked. 

The owners of the factory regularly locked all of the doors except for the main entrance so their employees wouldn’t take unauthorized breaks and leave without approval. 

There were no fire extinguishers or sprinklers installed in the building. The only fire measures that the factory had were buckets of water that were hanging on the wall, and many of them were empty. There was a fire hose on one of the floors, but it had not been maintained and the valve was rusted shut. 

The floors in question only had one fire escape, and that went to an inner courtyard. 

One of the bookkeepers on the 8th floor phoned the 10th floor to tell them of the fire because there were no alarms or other way to notify them that they were in danger. 

The fire spread incredibly fast and there was panic. Everyone began to rush to the one exit which became jammed with bodies. Many women were trampled to death. 

Others rushed to the windows and eventually jumped to avoid being consumed by the flames. 

Those who managed to make it to the fire escape overwhelmed it, and it collapsed. Even then, it turned out that the fire escape ladder didn’t even reach the ground. 

When the fire department arrived, they didn’t have the equipment to fight the fire. Their ladders only reached the sixth floor, and the fire was on floors 8-10. 

Many workers on the 9th and 10th floor did manage to escape to the roof and from there crossed over to other buildings to safety. 

The entire fire was over in just 18 minutes. The contents of the factory were so combustible that it allowed the fire to burn hot and fast. 

The final death toll from the fire was 146 dead. 123 women and 23 men. 62 people jumped to their deaths to avoid the flames. 

The two owners of the factory were actually on location when the fire started and they managed to survive by fleeing to the roof with others. 

The tragedy shocked New York City and the entire nation and led to widespread changes in many areas. 

A few days after the fire, an estimated 350,000 New Yorkers took part in a funeral procession for the victims. An emergency meeting held at the Metropolitan Opera House packed the venue. 

One of the results was an increase in the growth of the membership of the  International Ladies Garment Workers Union or ILGWU. They became the largest union representing garment workers across the United States. 

If you are old enough, you might remember them best from the “Look For the Union Lable” advertisements they used to run in the 70s and 80s.

With the collapse of the garment industry in the United States, the union eventually merged with other unions and no longer exists. 

Another major change was the strengthening of fire codes and their enforcement. The truth is, there weren’t really any fire codes at the time. The owners weren’t guilty of breaking any fire codes because there weren’t any. 

The New York State legislature created the ??Factory Investigating Commission which looked into the disaster to suggest new laws to make sure this didn’t happen again. The commission’s powers were widespread in looking into many businesses beyond just the garment industry.

The Tammany Hall political machine in New York City, which will be the subject of a future episode, was one of the main drivers behind the commission and implementing its ideas. They saw the drive for reforms to be a popular political position and threw their weight behind it. 

It lead to 54-hour workweek legislation in New York, as well as rules regarding improved toilet and dining facilities at workplaces. 

New fire regulations included mandating sprinklers in high-rise buildings, fire extinguishers, improved fireproofing, doors that swung outward, alarm systems, and rules about the width and number of stairs in large buildings. Enforcement of fire codes was also stepped up as well, with stricter enforcement and penalties. 

The New York City fire chief identified over 200 factories in the city where a similar fire was possible. 

The American Society of Safety Professionals was founded in New York City just months later as a direct result of the fire. 

As for the owners of the factory, they were charged with second and third-degree manslaughter but were acquitted. They later lost a civil trial for wrongful death and had to pay $75 to the families for each person who died in the fire. 

Just two years later, one of the factory owners, Max Blanck, was caught locking the doors of his factory during working hours, the very thing that killed so many people in the fire. 

He was fined the minimum fee of $20. 

The memory of the fire is still kept alive. During the centennial of the fire in 2011, there were many events that were held, including a march on the fire’s anniversary.

There is currently a fundraising drive to create a memorial to the victims of the fire. 

The building where the fire took place is, believe it or not, still standing. While the fire gutted the inside, it remained structurally sound. It is now known as the Brown Building and it is owned by New York University. A plaque on the outside of the building honors the victims of the fire. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire remains one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. While the number of lives lost was horrific and unnecessary, the fire did result in a plethora of changes in fire safety and labor standards which undoubtedly prevented many other such disasters from being repeated.