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.
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