Labor Day was declared a federal holiday in 1894.  Its purpose was to honor the American worker, in a time when labor unions were fighting to make conditions safer and wages/working hours fairer.  The legislation to make it a holiday had been pushed quickly through Congress, in response to the overwhelming negative reaction to the government’s role in ending the Pullman strike.

In honor of Labor Day, and what it originally represented, here’s a re-post of my exploration of one of the greatest workplace disasters in U.S. history: the Triangle Factory Fire.

image via nyc.gov

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Just to give you fair warning, this week’s “Fashion Friday” is not a light-hearted one.  One hundred years ago today, March 25, 1911, was the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed 146 workers and exposed the hazards of factory work and employer abuses.  Until September 11, 2001, it was New York City’s deadliest workplace catastrophe, and marked a turning point in public policy and worker safety.

Background: the Triangle Waist Company

At the time of the fire, the company was the biggest manufacturer in New York City of women’s blouses (shirtwaist style, with fitted waist and puffed sleeves).  It had been started in 1900 by two Russian immigrants, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris.  The company grew to over 500 workers, nearly all of them immigrant women, some as young as 12 or 13.  Triangle Waist Company occupied the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the 10-story Asch Building in the city.

Triangle’s workers were ruthlessly exploited: 6-day weeks, long hours, cramped, ill-ventilated conditions, low pay.  Even after the 1909 city-wide shirtwaist factory workers’ strike, when other companies gave in to worker demands for shorter hours, better pay and safer working conditions, Triangle did not.

Un-named garment factory, similar in size to Triangle, 1910
via Cornell University archives

The fire was purported to have started in a cutter’s scrap bin on the 8th floor, probably by a cigarette butt thrown in.  Despite workers’ attempts to put it out, the fire quickly spread.

What went wrong?

1. Communication:

Workers called up via teleautograph (the company’s method of communication between floors) to the other floors – the 9th and 10th – but they could only get through to the 10th floor (where the owners worked, conveniently). Those on the 9th floor had no warning.

2. No water for fire hoses:

When dumping water pails on the fire didn’t work, workers pulled out the fire hoses located on each floor.  When they turned the valve, no water came out.

3. Poor building code (elevators and fire escapes):

The elevators and fire escapes were not built to handle the rush of hundreds (there were 500 on those three floors) of people.  The fire escape buckled and collapsed under the weight after only 20 people had made it down safely; elevators were crammed to double their capacities, and of course the fire reached the elevator shafts in just a short time.

artist: Robert Carter, 1911
via Cornell University archives

4. Dangerous factory conditions – locked doors (company policy), overcrowding, improper storage of combustible materials:

There were combustible scraps of cotton fabric everywhere, which fed the fire more quickly; too many panicked people trampling each other to get out; and, with the company policy that hallway doors be locked (to prevent theft of materials), people had nowhere left to go after the fire escape and elevators failed.  Windows were next.  Three of the male cutters strung themselves as a human chain from the window of their building to the next.  Several girls were able to climb across, but the men soon lost their balance and all three fell to their deaths.

5. Fire department equipment:

The fire department responded quickly, arriving about 15 minutes after the fire had begun.  But their ladder only reached to the 6th floor, and the hose streams could only reach the 7th floor.  People started jumping.    Firefighters stretched nets and large horse blankets to try to catch them, but too many were coming at once.

The owners, however, were able to escape: being on the top floor, they managed to get to the roof, where they were helped across to the roof of an adjoining building, along with about 150 workers from the 10th floor.

The fire was out within 30 minutes, but not before 146 people had died.  After a grim recovery effort, the bodies were taken to Bellevue Morgue and the adjoining pier (because of lack of space) on the East River to be identified by relatives.



How the public reacted:

Horror, anger, and outrage would be accurate descriptors.  Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter, but were acquitted.

New York Times archives

 

Long-term effects:

The New York Legislature created a commission to investigate sweatshops in the city, and passed additional labor laws and restrictions, with steep penalties for owners who did not comply.  Support of unions grew, and unions themselves became a force to be reckoned with.

April 5, 1911 funeral procession for the seven remaining unidentified victims

Looking back at this tragedy, it is easy to see in hindsight what a strong union could have done to make conditions safer for the workers, although many factors were to blame.  But what about today?  In the midst of government regulations and better building safeguards, do we still need unions, or are they obsolete?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time,
Kathy

For more information, try these links:
Cornell University Online Exhibit
HistoryBuff
Factory Fire, Owners’ Trial – NYT
Factory Fire, Owner’s Trial2 – NYT
Factory Conditions – NYT
EDwize: Education, News, and Opinion

Also, check out PBS’s “American Experience: Triangle Fire”:

Watch Triangle Fire on PBS. See more from American Experience.

 Here’s the link to the entire PBS broadcast.

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