Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that took place in New York City on March 25, 1911, remains a landmark event in the history of U.S. industrial disasters. The fire that claimed the lives of 146 people, most of them immigrant women and girls, caused an outcry against unsafe working conditions in factories and sweatshops located in New York and in other industrial centers throughout the United States and became the genesis for numerous workplace safety regulations on both the state and federal level.
The ten-storey Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. The top three floors of the building housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The Triangle Company, like its competitors, used subcontractors for the manufacture of women's clothing. Under this system, workers dealt directly with subcontractors who paid them extremely low wages and required them to work long hours in unsafe conditions. The Triangle Company was the largest manufacturer of shirt-waists in the city, employing approximately 700 people. While the subcontractors, foremen, and a few others were male, the great majority of the workers were female. Most of the Triangle workers, who ranged in age from 15 to 23, were Italian or European Jewish immigrants. Many of them spoke little English. Their average pay was $6 per week, and many worked six days a week in order to earn a little more money.
Like many of their fellow immigrants in other factories throughout the city, the Triangle Shirtwaist workers labored from 7 in the morning until 8 at night with one half-hour break for lunch. They spent their time hunched over heavy, dangerous sewing machines that were operated by foot pedals. The rooms in which they worked were dirty, dim, and poorly ventilated. The finished shirtwaists hung on lines above the workers' heads and bundles of material, trimmings, and scraps of fabric were piled high in the cramped aisles between the machines. Most of the doors were locked on the theory that locked doors prevented the workers from stealing material.
In November 1909, these conditions led the local LABOR UNION to call for a strike against the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Over the next few weeks, the strike spread to the city's other shirtwaist manufacturers. Although local newspapers referred to the general strike as the "uprising of the ten thousand," estimates of the actual number of women workers who participated in the walk out range from 20,000 to 30,000. Predictably, government officials, the media, and the public split into two camps with unions, labor organizations, and blue collar workers supporting the strikers while businesses and industrial leaders denounced them.
Although the manufacturers tried a number of tactics to break the strike including mass arrests and the use of thugs to beat and threaten the workers, public opinion appeared to reside with labor. In February 1910 the opposing groups reached a settlement which gave the strikers a slight wage increase. Although the strikers thought they had gained a shorter work-week and better working conditions, no changes were made. In particular, union demands for better fire safety were not addressed.
Saturday shifts generally ended earlier than weekday shifts. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, workers in other parts of the building had left at around noon. Many of the 500 workers present that day at the Triangle Company had begun to put away their work and to put on their hats and coats in anticipation of the factory's 4:45 P.M. quitting time. At approximately 4:30 P.M. the cry of "Fire!" was heard on the eighth floor. Pandemonium ensued as flames began to leap over the piles of rags that littered the floor. While a few workers attempted to throw buckets of water at the fire, terrified women and girls struggled to make their way to the narrow stairway or the factory's single fire escape. Others crowded into one of two elevators (one was not in service) as the fire spread to the ninth and tenth floors.
Most of the workers on the eighth floor were able to make their way to safety. Workers on the tenth floor where company offices were located received a phone call about the fire and were able to climb to the roof of the fireproof building where they made their way to the adjoining New York University building and were rescued. Those on the ninth floor were not as lucky. The fire moved so quickly, that the corpses of some were found still seated in front of their sewing machines. As the conflagration built, the workers on that floor found no way to escape. The exit doors, which swung inward, were locked. The one working elevator, after making its way down with the first load of workers, stopped working. The number of workers on the fire escape was so great that it gave way and collapsed, killing a number of girls and women who were on it. Some women tried to slide down the elevator cables but lost their grip and plunged to their deaths. As horrified onlookers watched, other desperate workers began breaking windows and jumping from the ninth floor to the street.
As corpses piled up on the sidewalks outside the building, two fire fighting companies arrived followed by several others but found themselves helpless. Their ladders only extended to the sixth floor and their hoses were too short to be of use. They tried to use safety nets, but girls and women jumped in groups of three and four breaking the nets and fatally hitting the concrete pavement. In less than 15 minutes a total of 146 women and girls had died from burns, suffocation, or falls from the fire escape, the elevator shafts, or the ninth floor. Although the remains of most of the workers were identified within one week, seven remained unidentified.
The gruesome events of the day consumed the city of New York for a number of weeks. Most people were repulsed at the horrific way in which the women had died and the lack of safety precautions that had led to the massive loss of life. However, some defended the right of businesses to operate as they saw fit and to remain free from government safety regulations which they saw as government intervention. Many government officials pronounced themselves powerless to impose safety regulation.
An investigation ensued and the owners of the company were ordered to stand trial on charges of MANSLAUGHTER. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although many contended it was caused by a spark from one of the sewing machines or a carelessly tossed cigarette. Blanck and Harris were acquitted by a jury charged with deciding whether they knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire. The families of 23 of the victims filed civil suits against the owners, and in 1914 a judge ordered them to pay $75 to each of the families. Three days after the fire, the Triangle Company inserted a notice in trade papers stating that the company was doing business at 9-11 University Place. Within days, New York City's Building Inspection Department found that the company's new building was not fireproof, and the company had already permitted the exit to the factory's one fire escape to be blocked.
Immediately after the fire, numerous organizations held meetings to look into improving working conditions in factories and other places of work. A committee of 25 citizens, including FRANCES PERKINS and HENRY L. STIMSON—who later became cabinet members in President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's administration—was created as a first step in establishing a Bureau of Fire Prevention. A nine-member Factory Investigating Commission, chaired by state senators Alfred E. Smith (the Democratic presidential candidate in 1928), Robert W. Wagner, and union leader SAMUEL GOMPERS, worked from 1911 to 1914 to investigate fire safety as well as other conditions affecting the health and welfare of factory workers.
In 1912 the New York State Assembly enacted legislation that required installation of automatic sprinkler systems in buildings over seven stories high that had more than 200 people employed above the seventh floor. Legislation also provided for fire drills and the installation of fire alarm systems in factory buildings over two stories high that employed 25 persons or more above the ground floor. Additional laws mandated that factory waste should not be permitted on factory floors but instead should be deposited in fireproof receptacles. Because of the bodies found in the open elevator shafts of the Asch Building, legislation was enacted that required all elevator shafts to be enclosed.
The scope of safety laws was expanded by legislation that limited the number of hours that minors could work and prohibited children under the age of 16 from operating dangerous machinery. Many laws passed by the New York Assembly in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were the basis of similar workplace safety legislation in numerous states throughout the country.
Another byproduct of the fire was an increased support for unions, particularly the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The ILGWU, to which some Triangle company employees had belonged, helped form the Joint Relief Committee which collected moneys to be distributed to the families of the lost workers. The union gained thousands of new members in industrial centers around the country and helped to lobby for stricter safety regulations, many of which eventually were encoded in federal legislation passed during the administration of President Roosevelt. These laws, in turn, were the genesis of the U.S. LABOR DEPARTMENT's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA was established in 1971 by the OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT to improve workplace safety conditions for the nation's workers who numbered 111 million in 2003.