The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911
The New York Fire Department battles the great blaze at the Triangle shirtwaist factory in Greenwich Village on March 25, 1911.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burnt down on March 25, 1911, killing 146 people. Because the killings were completely preventable–the majority of the victims perished as a consequence of disregarded safety features and closed doors within the manufacturing building–it is recognized as one of the most notorious tragedies in American industrial history. The incident drew global attention to the dangers of factory sweatshops, prompting the adoption of a number of rules and regulations to better safeguard employees’ safety.

Working Conditions in The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

The Triangle factory was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building, on the junction of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan, and was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. It was a veritable sweatshop, with young immigrant women working at sewing machines in a confined environment. Almost all of the employees were adolescent females who did not understand English and worked 12 hours a day, every day.

There were four elevators with access to the industrial levels in 1911, but only one was completely working, requiring workers to file down a long, narrow hallway to reach it. There were two stairwells leading down to the street, one of which was sealed from the outside to prevent thievery and the other of which only opened inward. Even under the best of conditions, it would have taken hours for all of the workers to use the fire escape since it was so small.

Another devastating fire happened in New York City exactly 79 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster. The fire at the Bronx’s Happy Land Social Club killed 87 people, making it the city’s worst fire since 1911.

The risk of fire in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist was well-known, but high levels of corruption in both the garment business and the municipal administration meant that no effective fire-prevention measures were employed. Blanck and Harris have a history of strange industrial fires. In 1902, the Triangle factory was destroyed twice, and the Diamond Waist Company plant was burned twice, in 1907 and 1910.

Blanck and Harris appear to have set fire to their businesses early in the morning in order to collect on the substantial fire insurance premiums they had obtained, a typical practice in the early twentieth century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it did add to the disaster since Blanck and Harris refused to construct sprinkler systems or take other precautions in case they needed to burn down their stores again.

Blanck and Harris’ known anti-worker practices were added to this delinquency. Despite working 12 hours a day, every day, their employees were paid only $15 per week. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a strike in 1909, seeking more pay and more regular hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers to stand firm, employing thugs to arrest the striking women and paying politicians to look the other way.

What Started The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire?

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in a rag bin, affecting 600 workers at the facility. The manager tried to put out the fire with the fire hose, but it was too late because the hose had decayed and the valve had rusted shut. Panic arose as the fire became larger. The young workers attempted to leave the building through the elevator, but it could only seat 12 people, and the operator was only able to make four trips back and forth when the elevator broke down in the midst of the heat and flames.

The females who were left waiting for the elevator jumped down the shaft to their deaths in a frantic bid to escape the fire. Many of the females who fled down the stairwells were burnt alive when they discovered a closed door at the bottom of the steps.

Workers on the upper levels, including the owners, evacuated to the roof and then to neighboring buildings. When firemen arrived, they were confronted with a horrific scene. The girls who did not make it to the stairwells or elevators were trapped inside the factory by the fire and began jumping from the windows to get out.

The jumpers’ bodies collided with the fire hoses, making it harder to start combating the flames. In addition, the firemen’ ladders only reached the seventh storey, while the fire was on the eighth. A life net was spread out to catch jumpers in one occasion, but three females leaped at the same moment, shredding the net. The nets proved to be largely ineffective.

It was all over in 18 minutes. 49 employees perished after being burnt or smothered by smoke, 36 died in the elevator shaft, and 58 died after jumping to the pavements. The fire claimed the lives of 146 individuals, with two more dying later from their injuries.

Importance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The fire brought together organized labor and reform-minded politicians like as progressive New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and Senator Robert F. Wagner, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal’s legislative architects. After serving on a commission that helped establish the Factory Investigating Commission in New York in the aftermath of the disaster, Frances Perkins would eventually become Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. The employees’ union organized a march on Fifth Avenue in New York on April 5 to protest the conditions that contributed to the fire. There were 80,000 persons in attendance.

Despite overwhelming evidence that the owners and management were grossly irresponsible in the incident, a grand jury decided not to prosecute them with manslaughter. They finally paid $75 in compensation to each victim’s family to resolve litigation against them, a fraction of the $400 per death that their insurer gave them.

Nonetheless, the slaughter for which they were responsible forced the city to reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law, the New York Democratic Party took up the cause of the worker and became recognized as a reform party in October. Both were critical in averting future calamities of the same magnitude.

 

SEE ALSO:

Women in Factories (1908);

Workers’ Compensation Law (1910);

The Child Labor Act of 1916;

The National Labor Relations Act (1935);

The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938);

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970).

 

SOURCES:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)

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