Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

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The Asch building, site of the Triangle factory fire (note the third story from the top says "Triangle Waist Company")
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Police and onlookers standing by the bodies of women who leapt from the burning building
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Identifying the dead in the Triangle Factory fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, causing the death of 146 garment workers who either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.


[edit] The fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, occupied the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building in New York City at the intersection of Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square.

The company employed approximately 500 workers, mostly young Eastern European female immigrants who worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 60-hour to 72-hour workweek, sewing clothes for a wage of a dollar fifty per week.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had already become well-known outside the garment industry by 1911: the massive strike by women's shirtwaist makers in 1909, known as the Uprising of 20,000, began with a spontaneous walkout at the Triangle Company.

While the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement covering most of those workers after a four-month strike, Triangle Shirtwaist refused to sign the agreement.

The conditions of the factory were typical of the time. Flammable textiles were stored throughout the factory, smoking was common, illumination was provided by open gas lighting and there were no fire extinguishers.

In the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire began on the eighth floor. Either a lighted match or a cigarette started the fire. To this day, no one knows whether it was accidental or intentional. The workers on the tenth floor were alerted and most on those two floors were able to evacuate. However word of the fire did not reach the ninth floor in time.

The ninth floor had only two doors leading out. One stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames by the time the seamstresses realized the building was ablaze. The other door had been locked, ostensibly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks and to keep out union organizers.

The single exterior fire escape soon collapsed under the weight of people trying to escape. The elevator also stopped working, cutting off that means of escape.

Realizing there was no other way to avoid the flames, some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the ground nine floors below. Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the elevator shaft. Few survived these falls; a single survivor was found close to drowning in water collecting in the elevator shaft.[citation needed]

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor. The death toll was 146.

[edit] The aftermath of the fire

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, at which Max Steuer, counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman, by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times — which she did, without altering a single word. Steuer argued to the jury that Alterman and probably other witnesses had memorized their statements and may even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. The jury acquitted the owners. They lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913.

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, said in a speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, to an audience largely made up of the well-heeled members of the Women's Trade Union League, a group that had provided moral and financial support for the Uprising of 20,000:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

Others in the community, and in particular in the ILGWU, drew a different lesson from events: working with local Tammany Hall officials, such as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers, such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, they pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The ILGWU leadership formed bonds with those reformers and politicians that would continue for another forty years, through the New Deal and beyond.

The Asch building survived the fire and was refurbished. Real estate speculator and philanthropist Frederick Brown later bought the building and subsequently donated the structure to New York University in 1929, where it is now known as the Brown Building of Science. The building is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

[edit] Further reading

  • David von Drehle, ''Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
  • Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire 1962.

[edit] References in popular culture

  • The tragedy was the subject of a 1978 movie, The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal
  • The tragedy has also inspired a musical, Rags
  • The band Rasputina wrote a song about the fire called "My Little Shirtwaist Fire"
  • Lois Lowry wrote about the tragedy in her book 'The Silent Boy'
  • Katharine Weber used it as the basis for her novel 'Triangle'
  • The poet Robert Pinsky references the tragedy in his poem 'Shirt'
  • Mary Jane Auch's novel 'Ashes of Roses' was based upon the tragedy
  • In his recent novel Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham writes of a 'Manhatta' factory that comes to an end similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory but, calls it 'Manhatta' to comply with chronology

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

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