Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

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Going to graduate school at New York University was often a literal walk through American history. A row of brownstones facing Washington Square housed school offices, and it was hard not to think of Edith Wharton each time I passed. The urban campus, which spread out along the blocks surrounding the square, included converted early 19th-century stables and one-time factory lofts refashioned into classroom and office spaces.   

The most infamous of those lofts was the Asch Building. Today it’s a science center with a bronze plaque that lets you know it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On March 25, 1911—100 years ago—it was the site of one of the worst workplace accidents in American history, the Triangle Waist Company fire.

The fire started at closing time at the end of a long workweek. Flames suddenly erupted from a trash can on the eighth floor. That small fire quickly ignited the shirtwaist cloth lying everywhere. The flames spread quickly through the paper patterns hanging from the ceiling and flashed through the fiber-filled air. In 18 minutes, 146 people died, either by smoke, burning or by leaping to their deaths on the sidewalk below. 

Because the factory was in the middle of a busy city, there were plenty of horrified eyewitnesses who saw the flaming, leaping bodies. There are many photos and contemporary newspaper accounts.

I hope this week that teachers will take some time to share the story of the Triangle fire with their students. It touches on a multitude of American history themes: urbanization, immigration, women’s history, technological change, industrialization, labor and government regulation. With most of the victims between 16 and 23 years old, it’s easy for students to relate. 

But mainly, the Triangle fire story explains why unions came about and then, when they proved insufficient, how government power was needed to protect workers. It’s a contemporary message. In today’s anti-government, anti-union environment, it’s important to illustrate what happens when the powerful hold all the cards.

For years, the garment industry straddled the evolutionary line between the household and the industrial economy. Prior to the 1840s, most people made their own clothes or had them made by seamstresses and tailors. Sweatshops emerged with the invention of the sewing machine. Under this new system, middlemen cranked out garments by dividing up tasks—with some people only making buttonholes and some only assembling sleeves—among an army of laborers working in tenements, usually under terrible conditions. Workers were paid by the piece, a system that encouraged speed over safety. 

By the late 19th century, entrepreneurs were combining operations and putting them under one roof in modern factories. It was a faster and more efficient way to produce clothing. Many of those factories opened in New York to take advantage of its large pool of immigrant labor. By 1900, about 80,000 people worked in the garment industry.

It was a highly competitive industry, because it didn’t take a big investment to buy sewing machines, rent a space and hire workers. The huge supply of clothing produced meant garments sold at low prices. The only way factory owners could turn a profit was to pay close attention to the bottom line and watch costs.

The owners kept labor costs low by hiring girls, most of them recent immigrants from Italy or Eastern Europe. By 1910, the typical factory girl worked 11 hours a day, six days a week. For that week’s work, she made anywhere from $1 to $10 (about $23 to $230 in today’s money).

The workers didn’t take the long hours and terrible working conditions sitting down. By 1900, some had organized a union to improve factory conditions. They picketed, signed petitions and persuaded others to join them. Factory owners resisted, using police and armed thugs to intimidate the organizers. In 1909, workers joined ranks for a strike that kept factories closed for two months and brought 20,000 women into the streets. In the factories that accepted them, the unions negotiated for safety rules and shorter hours.

The owners of the Triangle factory, immigrants Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, held out. They didn’t want the shorter factory hours, and they needed to keep their costs down. Their factory occupied three floors of the Asch building. The building, with high ceilings, large windows that admitted plenty of light, and elevators, was seen as a vast improvement over tenements. And, because it was considered “fireproof,” the building was eligible for fire insurance.

Buying fire insurance, in the partners’ estimation, was cheaper than taking the measures to prevent fires. So even though sprinklers and alarms had been invented, there were none installed in the building. Workers didn’t practice exiting in fire drills. The stairs were narrow. 

Because theft of cloth or thread could eat into profits, all workers had to exit the building through a single set of doors so watchmen could check their bags. To keep would-be thieves from leaving the building without passing the watchmen, doors to an exit on the ninth floor were locked.

When the fire broke out, the owners escaped to the roof, along with the managers who held the keys to the locked doors. They survived. On the ninth floor, workers who tried to get out found a too-narrow stairwell, a locked exit, and a metal fire escape. Firefighters later found 20 bodies in the stairwell, and others piled around the locked exit.

The elevator operator tried to ferry workers to safety but had to stop when the weight of women leaping into the shaft to escape the fire made it impossible for the elevator to rise. Fire trucks responded immediately, but rescued none of the trapped workers because their ladders reached only to the sixth floor. For about 50 people, the only choice was jumping from the windows. Spectators on the street watched in horror as, one after another, young women—some of them on fire—leaped to their deaths.

The fire marked a pivotal point in labor history. The New York Factory Commission investigated and recommended 36 new laws. These were quickly enacted by the state legislature, and New York’s fire safety rules became a model for the nation. At the same time, the fire was an impetus for the labor movement. Within a short time, most factories in New York made deals with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and used union labor.

Fifty years ago, in 1961, David Dubinsky, then president of the ILGWU, spoke at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the fire. "These were our martyrs,” he explained, “because what we couldn't accomplish by reasoning with the bosses, by pleading with the bosses, by arguing with the bosses, they accomplished with their deaths."

Today, our closets are filled with clothes made in factories abroad. Businesses would rather pay the shipping costs than deal with child labor laws, worker safety, shorter hours, health care, and pensions—all those things that American workers got because they joined together in unions.

In 1911, the technology existed to stop the fire. And some of the laws were even on the books. But without union power, and without government regulations that were enforced, business owners made the choices that were best for business. Today, there are ever-louder calls to once again deregulate businesses. But we’ve already seen what that leads to. It leads to the Triangle shirtwaist fire.

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.

Comments

Today, there are ever-louder

Submitted by Keith Moore on 25 March 2011 - 2:15am.

Today, there are ever-louder calls to once again deregulate business. More and more, people are noticing that wealth and prosperity flee from unions and towards states that permit workers to be employed without being compelled to join. They seen convoluted and byzantine contracts shielding incompetent and sometimes criminal public servants from consequences while feasting on tax dollars. They see an entire industry in which the US was once a world leader starved by the iron fist of union power. They see regulations multiplying like viruses with the same general effect on America's fiscal health. They see American workers doing what they can to remain free of the tender ministrations of those who purport to help them. They see American companies exporting jobs to countries that do not choke them with an endless flow of nonsense laws and regulations, preferring to pay the shipping costs rather than employ a willing American worker who brings with him a wealth of "rights" and unreasonable laws "protecting" him. In other words, people are noticing that what is true of most governmental solutions is true of the pernicious mix of regulations and unions: a good idea that grows fat on initial success and becomes poison to the well-being of those the idea was conceived of to help.

If a union didn't have its claws into the Fred Meyer I worked out while going to school (or if Oregon was a right-to-work state), I would have made almost a thousand dollars more because I could have elected not to fork over hundreds of dollars from each paycheck for protection I neither wanted nor needed. Like a store owner who's being offered "protection" by a couple of thugs with baseball bats, I either paid them or I was out on the street (so to speak). Boy golly, was it wonderful to be protected from Fred Meyer by my friendly neighborhood union.

Yes, by all means let's

Submitted by Anne Blair on 29 March 2011 - 1:17pm.

Yes, by all means let's deregulate business. Let's bring back sweatshops. Your money won't do you much good while you're being burned alive because of the lack of safety regulations.

Why the "it's all or nothing"

Submitted by Keith Moore on 30 March 2011 - 2:45am.

Why the "it's all or nothing" fallacy? If someone proposed abolishing a law against eating cherry pie in the morning (there actually IS such a law), would your response be "Sure, let's abolish that law. Let's also abolish the laws against murder and rape"? Rational workplace safety laws (very few of these are actually necessary to achieve levels of safety comparable to what we have) are not the same thing as regulations that were clearly devised by some bureaucrat in a cubicle with no discernible grasp on reality. Laws preventing abusive terms of employment are also not equivalent to the effects of union power: a majority of workplace safety laws came before unions. Moreover, even if you can accept the proposition that unions are the best thing since sliced bread, there is no defense for an arrangement where an employee is compelled to surrender part of their paycheck to a union as a condition of employment.

Keith, we're puzzled by some

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 31 March 2011 - 8:59am.

Keith, we're puzzled by some of your assertions. A "majority" of workplace safety laws came before unions? Really? Yes, once safety rules were enacted into law they applied equally to union and non-union shops, but given that our earliest unions preceded both the first federal regulatory agency AND the Progressive Era, when a lot of new safety rules came into being, I'm afraid your assertion doesn't fly without evidence. Likewise, your image of "some bureaucrat in a cubicle with no discernible grasp on reality"is colorful, but ill-informed. The reality is that far too many regulatory agencies,especially at the federal level, are led by people who came out of the industries they regulate. Logic without facts is glittering, but ultimately empty.

I'm distinguishing between a

Submitted by Keith Moore on 31 March 2011 - 11:38pm.

I'm distinguishing between a workplace safety law and "if you don't have a handlebar exactly 6 inches away from this door, fork over a million dollars." Having a handlebar within a certain proximity of the hypothetical door may improve safety but byzantine obsession with precise location and precise means of accomplishing the increase in safety does nothing to improve the safety value of our theoretical handlebar. The laws that actually improved safety came long before the nitpicky have-this-precise-item-in-this-precise-place-or-else regulations now in vogue.

Well, see, the entire purpose of a regulation is (supposedly) effectiveness. It has long been generally accepted that lawyers police lawyers and doctors police doctors but when regulations are created, it's considered unthinkable to have an experienced professional guiding the regulatory process instead of a clever generalist. The state of the regulatory regime as it presently stands agues for deeper involvement of professionals who're aware that a drop of oil does not an Exxon Valdez make. Logic without facts may be empty but glittering facts deprived of a logical construct are dynamite in the hands of toddlers.

we did, we call it China.

Submitted by tina on 29 March 2011 - 1:57pm.

we did, we call it China.

Who is Fred Meyer?

Submitted by Ollington on 27 March 2011 - 6:30am.

Who is Fred Meyer?

Fred G. Meyer was an

Submitted by Keith Moore on 27 March 2011 - 11:46pm.

Fred G. Meyer was an entrepreneur who started a chain of stores that bear his name; I worked at once such store. Why do you ask?