The centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

Police officer and onlookers with bodies of Triangle fire victims, looking up at workers jumping out of burning Asch BuildingMarch 25, 2011 will be the hundredth anniversary of the tragic fire at Greenwich Village’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which saw 146 young men, women and children die burned, or trampled, or from hurling themselves out of the top stories’ windows in a desperate attempt to flee the fire. It was New York City’s largest workplace disaster until 9/11.

Firefighters spray tons of water on the Triangle fireA huge crowd of onlookers bore horrified witness to a carnage that even the remarkably swift action of firefighters (it only took them a few minutes to get there and half an hour to put out the fire) could not prevent. The ladders on their engines only reached the 6th floor, and the water pumps of the era weren’t strong enough to force water to the top of the building.

Women at their sewing stations in the Triangle Shirtwaist FactoryOwned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the Triangle Factory in the Asch Building was notorious for dangerous working conditions. Shirtwaists, women’s blouses that were popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, were made in rooms full of young, mainly female immigrants. They were crammed back to back along 75-foot tables. There were work baskets filled with loose cotton scraps in the aisles and on the tables. These were a major fire hazard because loosely-packed pieces of cotton ignite immediately into a blaze; there’s no slow burn or delicate plumes of smoke to warn you.

Twisted and broken fire escape ladderThe owners locked the back exit to prevent workers from absconding with a few bucks worth of fabric or thread, leaving only one way out in case of emergency, plus a rickety fire escape ladder that stopped two stories before the ground. The fire escape ladder would buckle under the weight of the fleeing workers, dropping them to a crushing death.

Blanck and Harris also had an enormously shady record of multiple early morning fires breaking out in two different factory locations. Said early morning fires just happened to coincide with the close of the peak shirtwaist selling season, thus destroying their inventory surplus while more than covering their losses with the payout from their insurance.

In 1909, 400 Triangle Factory employees had walked out, inspiring 20,000 garment workers from all over the city to follow in a general strike on November 23. Blanck and Harris hired prostitutes as scab workers and their pimps and the police to taunt and beat on the picketing workers. When in 1910 the cloakmakers joined the strike, industry and labor leaders signed an agreement that in theory established a grievance system in the garment industry. In practice, unscrupulous owners like Max Blanck and Isaac Harris just ignored it.

Workers on the ninth floor had their escape blocked by machines, chairs, work basketsIn the wake of the horrific deaths, on April 11th Harris and Blanck were indicted on seven counts of second degree manslaughter on the grounds that it was a violation of the Labor Code to keep a door locked during working hours. On December 27th, a jury acquitted of them of all charges, even though multiple witnesses testified that the Washington St. exit door was locked leaving workers with no escape when the Greene St. exit was choked with fire. The owners’ defense attorney, Max Steuer, cast doubt on the testimony by making the main witness, Kate Alterman, repeat her story over and over, then pointing to her repetition of certain words and phrases as the mark of memorization or coaching. He suggested a socialist conspiracy was afoot, a conspiracy that also explained the discovery of the actual locked lock from the Washington St. door 16 days after the fire.

In the end, Blanck and Harris made a tidy profit from the hideous death of 146 people. They filed insurance claims far in excess of their monetary losses and Steuer scared the insurance companies into settling for reimbursement in the amount of $60,000 above the documented loss. Steuer then prevented any of the Triangle Factory fire victims or survivors from collecting any of it. Blanck and Harris made $400 for every dead body.

Twenty-three civil suits were filed against them. They settled those lawsuits on March 11, 1914, almost three years to the day after the fire, with a payment of $75 per dead body. The year before that in the summer of 1913, Max Blanck had been arrested for locking yet another factory door. He got off with a $20 fine and an apology from the judge for having troubled him.

The tragedy of the fire and the sham of an aftermath galvanized the labor movement in New York City. The New York State Legislature created an investigating committee to report on factory conditions and how sanitation and worker safety issues could be addressed. Its 1915 report would be key to New York’s new laws that made the state one of the most progressive in the country in terms of labor relations.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration, created 60 years after the fire, has a memorial page on its website in honor of the anniversary of the tragedy. The Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Kheel Center at Cornell University has an exceptional collection of photographs and primary sources on the fire and its aftermath.

On Monday PBS aired an American Experience episode about the tragedy entitled Triangle Fire which you can now view online. I saw it and it’s a solid overview, but a little short on details, especially about the aftermath. On March 21st, HBO will be airing its more in-depth documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire, with the DVD to follow shortly.

If you’re in New York City, there will be a commemoration of the centennial on March 25th at 11 a.m. at the site of the fire, one block east of Washington Square Park in New York City. The building was one of them newfangled “fireproof” structures so it survived the fire even though its contents sure didn’t. It was refurbished and purchased by philanthropist Frederick Brown who donated it to New York University in 1929. Now it’s the Brown Building of Science, and Chemistry and Biology classes are held in it. Two plaques commemorate the victims of the 1911 fire.

20 thoughts on “The centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire

  1. It’s a pity that so many of the gains made in the interim are being threatened in the present day.

    1. I’m glad this anniversary comes at a time when collective bargaining and organized labor is very much in the news thanks to the Wisconsin protests. Too many people have forgotten the meat-grinding hell that unions were born from.

  2. Yes, it is tragic that the protections afforded working folks are being eroded under the guise of “freedom” and “free market enterprise” as we can see now in Wisconsin and Ohio. I for one saw the incidents of missing hands, fingers, feet and eyes in manufacturing companies almost disappear after the so-called “government regulations” of OSHA went into effect.

    1. That’s a remarkable testament to how far-ranging even just a small amount of workplace regulation can be. I imagine those kinds of severe maiming injuries used to be commonplace.

  3. :angry: The current labor situation makes me sick with grief for what we re about to step off into… our miserable future born from a miserable past with no lesson learned in between I guess.

  4. Thanks for the link to the PBS documentary. I decided to record an article for LibriVox called “The Washington Place Fire” by Rosey Safran, one of the workers at Triangle, after watching it. I don’t have HBO, but I’ll look for the DVD in about a month.

    1. HBO might also offer it online right after it airs, so check the website at the end of the month.

      Bravo for recording Safran’s article. I didn’t realize LibriVox had contemporary news content like that.

  5. These State workers in Wisconsin are making a hell of a lot more than the taxpayers that foot the bill…..what are you thinking?

  6. First of all, they are also taxpayers. Secondly, they weren’t protesting pay cuts — they agreed to them, in fact — but rather the elimination of collective bargaining rights.

    Lastly, without the hard-won gains organized labor brought this country, we’d still be in the blissful good ol’ days when hundreds of people could be locked into a burning factory with zero repercussions for the men holding the keys.

  7. what in the world is going on in the frist picture it look like people lying down on the ground dead and some pepole standing up in the back ground the second pictuer look like people trying to let a fire out of a tall buildin and thats what kill the people the fire and smoke in the thirth pictuer it look like people siting down thining or sewing or somthing i cant think of in the fourth picter it look like a building in the in the last picter it look like workers on the nineth floor had there ecapse blocked by machines,chairs and work baskets this is my commet sory if i have some words misspelled you know what i mean this is how i fell about this 🙁 because this should not have happented to them pepole back in the days.

  8. How do you know that. Those comments are just designed to keep workers down. Thankfully working people are not ‘sucked in’ by capitalist like you who want people to work for nothing, while you get the profits.

  9. What a lot of people and I mean a lot of people don’t know is that the little girls in the fire couldn’t escape because the door was locked everyday when they would sew when they went to work. There was no bathroom, no water, I don’t even think food or a window. So when the fire came around,… They were helpless and hopeless so that’s why the little girls died in the fire. 😥

  10. How can I inquire about a photograph posted in this blog about the Triangle factory fire? I would like permission to use it in an art project.

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