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.
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?
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|
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,
For more information, try these links:
Cornell University Online Exhibit
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.
20 thoughts on “Labor Day re-post: 100-year anniversary of the Triangle factory fire”
Wow, that's so sad!! That's how most clothes are still made today…just the sweatshops are in other countries. : (
It's cool how the three men formed a ladder and saves three lives, I love seeing heroism in the midst of tragedy. Thanks for sharing this great post, Kathy!
It's sad to think that such abuses are still going on. It's hard enough keeping things fair in our little corner of the world. If you like those personal heroism stories, check out the "history buff" link. There's more of it on that site.
Thanks so much for stopping by!
It's good to see that, out of such a horrible tragedy, there were some positive changes that came from it.
Both the general public and officials were horrified by what happened. I agree: it's gratifying to see that grief was turned into positive action.
Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for your comment!
Wow, I remember learning about this in 7th or 8th grade. About the doors being locked. About the over-crowded working conditions. About how the owners were able to escape.
One hundred years.
Thanks for the reminder.
It’s unfortunate horrible things like this have to happen before there is significant change. I sometimes wonder if history like this will one day be totally forgotten. Great post.
Thanks, Andrew and Renee! I agree that it’s important to remember these events, to learn the lessons history has to teach us. It’s awful what they went through, and it’s human nature to be complacent and not act until there’s a tragedy, unfortunately.
Great to have you stop by!
So tragic, I remember reading about this. Good of you to post this in memorial.
The Chick Dick Blog
If I’d heard of this before, I’ve forgotten….which I find hard to believe I could forget something like this. How absolutely horrible ~ this was my history lesson of the day. Thanks, Kathy
Tiffany, this was something I had only vague memories of learning about, and was quite a shock to learn the details about. Those people put up with – and died because of – so many things that we take for granted now. It’s chilling, really. Thanks so much for stopping by!
I saw a piece about this on CBS Sunday morning not long ago. One of the descendants (can’t remember if it’s of an owner or a victim) is using antique cotton fabric to make a memorial. Here’s CBS’s gallery of images from the fire – be warned, some of them are hard to look at. http://www.cbsnews.com/2300-201_162-10007109.html?tag=page
I wonder when people are going to see some of the modern day horrors. thanks for sharing – I had not heard of this fire.
At least these days, information is easier to share, including pictures, but you’re right, Louise, there are still plenty of workplace abuses out there. Thanks for stopping by.
Kathy – Such a sad, sad event and I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how horrendous and unsafe it was to work at Triangle or other similar places. At least we have the (admittedly very sad) satisfaction of knowing that this tragedy led to important improvements in the workplace.
Triangle was truly the best-known firetrap of them all. Thanks for your comment, Margot! 😀
I remember learning about this in school. It’s one of those tales that sticks out because it was tragic, but it also caused change for the better.
Thank you for sharing its anniversary with us. Doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, I think we’ve got more advancements to make, but we’re still much improved.
I agree, Jess. We have learned from our mistakes, and we can make things even better, as long as we don’t get too complacent.
I, too, remember learning about this in school. Like the others, I’m glad this event led to better working conditions. You asked a sticky wicket question in your prompt.
You know the one. The one about whether labor unions have served their purpose. I worked (and managed work-forces) in a non-union industry for decades and found government regulations held us to high standards. Were there abuses? Did some employers/supervisors violate those standards? Um. Yes. Sadly, it happens. However–having said that–there now seem to be an equal number of abuses on the union side of the equation. I’ve also witnessed those in unionized environments, where unions wield such control employers can’t properly discipline abhorrent behavior or implement cost-saving automation.
I won’t comment on media reports about unionized workers paid to show up and spend the day in a lunch room because I haven’t personally witnessed that, I don’t implicitly trust media reports, and those instances may be isolated. As I said, sticky wicket.
But, shame on U.S. companies that turn a blind eye to labor abuse oversees. It’s sad that common sense and humanity don’t carry the day in both corporate and employee decisions.
You make some great points here, and there have been a lot of abuses by unions coming to light recently. It’s hard to know what role they still serve, but I believe they still need to be around to keep the powers-that-be accountable. If unions were eliminated, there may not be enough eyes “on the ground,” as it were, to call out lax enforcement of worker safety laws.
Thanks for your comment!
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