“I, Rose Rosenfeld, am one of the workers/ who survived.
I left my big-button-attacher machine,
Climbed the iron stairs to the tenth floor
Where their offices were.
From the landing window
I saw girls in shirtwaists flying by,
Catherine wheels projected like Zeppelins
out open windows, then plunging downward,
sighing skirts open parasols on fire.”
– From the poem “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” by Robert Phillips.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupying the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in lower Manhattan in New York City caught fire at about 4:45 pm on this date, March 25, one hundred two years ago, in 1911. The building was gutted in 18 minutes, and 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who worked there lost their lives in the blaze. Safety measures had been all but non-existent at the Triangle. In spite of this, the owners of the place, which came to define the term “sweatshop”, got off scott free in the subsequent trial. But in the end, safety regulations would be greatly strengthened as a result of the lost lives at the Triangle.
Immigrant Laborers in the Garment Industry
In the spring of 1911, the streets of lower Manhattan were filled with horse drawn wagons, and were crowded with fetid tenements housing hundreds of thousands of people. Also bunched within this bustling melange were factories where workers made the shirts and dresses that were worn by the rest of America. There were millions of immigrants pouring into America in these days when Ellis Island was at its busiest. The largest number of those immigrants stayed in New York City, the ultimate “melting pot” of the “American Dream”, and went to work in that garment industry. There were more garment workers crowded into Manhattan than in any other place in the world, and most of them fit the same profile. These factories were packed with young immigrants, mostly girls in their early teens working long days, 9, 10, 12 hours every day, starting out at 3 or 4 dollars a week. These were literally sweat shops – the women were expected to turn out as many garments as possible. And there was very little concern about safety. New York had by that point in time been run for two generations by the corrupt Democratic Party machine called Tammany Hall. Tammany operated by delivering the votes of the immigrants, and collecting the “donations” of the moneyed class. Everybody was happy with this filthy arrangement except of course the workers, mostly Italians, Jews, and other newcomers to America. The Triangle factory was typical of the era. Hundreds of workers stitched fabric into women’s blouses. The factory was run by Max Blanck and Issac Harris (below).
They were staunchly anti – Union, deter- mined to manage their business the way they saw fit. Both men were adept at buying influence with Tammany Hall, hiring strike breakers in 1909 and 1910. This corrupt system also had the effect of not requiring basic safety measures to be taken in the factory.
March 25, 1911 – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Catches Fire
March 25, was a Saturday, but just another work day for the women who sat at the rows of machines in the Triangle factory, which was on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the ten story building. It was quitting time on a Saturday afternoon, and somebody catching a quick smoke dropped a match or a cigarette butt into one of the bins holding discarded bits of fabric, and it quickly went up. Within five minutes, the entire 9,000 sq. ft. 8’th floor was consumed in flames. The workers on the 8’th floor had enough time to escape, but hundreds of their co-workers on the floor above were caught in a death trap. As the smoke filled the floor, most of them were unaware that there were stairs nearby that would have lead them to the 10’th floor and safety. As the conflagration spread, the women were engulfed in heat, and flames (Below, the carnage inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory).
As the fire department arrived, thousands of people looked up from the streets below, and had the experience of watching helplessly as people came to the windows and had to make that terrible decision of how they were going to die — in the flames or by jumping to their deaths. Joseph Fletcher an assistant cashier managed to escape to the roof, and witnessed this:
“I looked down the whole height of the building. My people were sticking out of the windows on the ninth floor. I saw my girls, my pretty ones going down through the air. They hit the sidewalk spread out and still.”
Some of the Workers Are Heroically Rescued
Across the ninth floor were elevators operated by two heroic young Italian Americans. Time and again, they would move the elevators past the flames of the eighth floor, pick up another load of passengers, and take them to the safety of the street level. These two men rescued more than 100 women who would otherwise have died. But as the elevators dropped the final time they realized that they were not going to make it again as the smoke was filling the floor. Women then began jumping down the elevator shaft. Next to that was the last door out, and it was locked. Some of the women began running down the fire escape at the back of the building, but that began to collapse under their collective weight. The safest place during the fire was the tenth floor wherein Blanck and Harris had their offices. Soon after it began, they got a telephone call telling them about it, and they with about 70 other workers went to the roof, and crossed over to the safety of adjoining buildings.
The Fire Leads to New Safety Standards, But “Women had to burn……”
As a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, there was a public outcry which lead to the strengthening of the Garment
Workers Unions, improved work and safety regulations and the passage of some of the most progressive labor laws in the country. Simple things such as clearly marked fire exits, fire escapes, and fire extinguishers have their genesis in that terrible conflagration. In December of that year, Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter for having kept so many of the doors on the 9th floor locked. But through the use of their brilliant Defense Attorney, Max Stoyer, they were acquitted. While they personally escaped their just fate in this life, they did not escape entirely. The Labor Unions whom they and their ilk so thoroughly detested became a force to be reckoned with, and remain so down to the present day
But the price for reform had been heavy indeed. Referring to the laws passed to guarantee worker’s safety in the wake of the Triangle tragedy, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor remarked: “Rarely do you get such an opportunity for legislative reform, but women had to burn first in order for this to happen.”
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Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Presentby Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1976.