The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Man-Made Disaster

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was March 25, 1911, in New York City. It was a Saturday afternoon just like any other at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where young immigrant women sat in front of sewing machines, day in and day out, sewing. But on that day a fire broke out, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers. Among those who died in the flames and smoke were 123 women and 23 men.1 Many even jumped or fell to their deaths out the windows, making this event a man-made disaster and one of the deadliest industrial disasters of all time.

Horse-drawn fire engines in street going to the fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The factory was located in the Asch Building at Washington Place in Greenwich Village, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building. Max Blanck and Issac Harris were the owners of the factory, and their company was known as the largest firm in the business at the time. They styled women’s blouses known as “Shirtwaists,” which were paired with tailored skirts. This attire had become the standard in fashion for women in the early twentieth century. They were also known to resemble men’s shirts. When it came to their workers, they had hired operators who then contracted out for factory workers. The company itself only dealt with the contractors, and there was no fixed rate of pay for the workers.2 At the time, the factory employed about five-hundred employees, mostly young immigrant women who were of Italian or Jewish descent. These women worked up to eleven-hour shifts on weekdays, and twelve-hour shifts on Saturdays, and they earned between $7-$12 dollars for a 52-hour week. Many of these women were the breadwinners of their household, and their income was sometimes not sufficient to cover their needs.

Towards the end of the workday on that Saturday evening in 1911, a fire broke out around 4:00 pm. The fire started in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables on the eighth floor from what is believed to have come from a cigarette. A manager tried to put the fire out with a hose but the hoses valve was rusted shut, and rotten away. The fire spread quickly and the workers panicked. There was one fire escape that quickly collapsed, and four elevators, which out of the four only one was working. The elevator held twelve people at a time, and it managed to make four rescue trips before it broke down.3 With no other alternatives available, people began throwing themselves out the windows, and some were even crushed to death trying to get out. Workers tried to take the stairs, but the exit doors only opened inward and were kept locked by factory management to prevent theft by the workers, as the managers would check their workers belongings every day before they left for the day.

Bodies of workers who jumped from windows to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Celia Saltz Pollack, a survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire said,

I remember on that day there was a lot of singing and happiness in the shop because it was the end of the week and we got paid. We were soon all going to go home. When the fire started I was sitting at my machine. I looked up and saw the fire near the cutting tables but I did not think it was so terrible. What was terrible was that the fire spread in a split second.

By the time the firefighters arrived, they came to the realization that their ladders could only extend up to the sixth or seventh floors. With no other option, sixty-two workers jumped and fell to their deaths, while the remaining died from the smoke and flames within the building.4

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This fire not only pushed issues of unsafe factories and immigrant exploitation into the public consciousness, but for the first time the fire allowed for attention to be brought to deplorable conditions of New York factories.5 Women obtained well deserved attention onto current work conditions and safety measures in the workplace. Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought a feeling of resentment and heartbreak to many, this event and its victims will always be remembered.

  1. Ric Burns, “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 24, 1999.
  2. Jonathan Fink, “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” TriQuarterly, no, (2009): 135-136.
  3. Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, s.v. “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk.
  4. Mia Lynn Mercurio, Régine Randall, “Tributes Beyond Words: Art Educators’ Use of Textiles to Memorialize the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” Journal for Learning through the Arts no. 1 (2016): 4-5.
  5. Albert Marrin, Flesh and blood so cheap: The Triangle fire and its legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 23-25.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Man-Made Disaster
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78 Comments

  • This article presents a great story as to what the events were that took place at the triangle shirtwaist factory . It is so sad to think that those people were just determined to make a living for their family , yet they were faced with disaster. although this incident was unfortunate at least this incident lead to greater regulation and safety guidelines, in order to prevent another incident like this from occurring again.

  • This story is tragic and very unfortunate that something preventable had to take innocent lives. Since the event, fire awareness has been raised, but as the author said, the fire was believed to be caused by a cigarette, which means even small things can cause large tragedies. Making it almost impossible for fires taking down buildings to be completely erased.

  • This is always an interesting story because it highlighted the periods harsh work standards and conditions that especially women had to endure. I wish the article was longer and had expanded more upon the fire and the events surrounding it. This event changed so much in the work force and provided the public with an image of how terrible conditions were and how awful they were treated that they were locked inside of a burning building and the only way to espace was to jump to their death.

  • Very sad story. I think the author did a great job setting the stage in the beginning of the article. At least we learned from this event and now have higher standards for fire safety in the work place which has saved countless lives. I am not sure why the author felt the need to say the workers jumped out in the same way twice but other than that I thought the article was really good.

  • I’ve never heard of this fire and to read about it sounds shocking. It’s shocking because these women were trapped and either burned to death or jumped to their deaths. It is also disturbing that the conditions were so inadequate and terrible that they couldn’t turn on the water to put it out when it first started. On top of that, the ladders that the fire department had weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floor. I’m glad that they’ve brought workplace regulations, but it’s sad that they didn’t happen soon enough.

  • I first heard of this story in high school in my U.S. history class and was taken aback by how bad these women were taken advantage of.
    Therefore, the story shocks me everytime I read it. It is insane how so many women died because of a safety hazard. While tragic, it is comforting to know that this lead to labor laws and safety regulations. No worker deserves these kind of harsh conditions. A factor that was centered one was their ethnicity and gender which contributed to the lack of attention to safety regulations. No matter the case these workers did not deserve their death.

  • I remembered learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory back in high school. I want to say that this is the reason why business and stores aren’t allowed to lock door during operating hours. This is heartbreaking reading how people would jump out the windows so that they wouldn’t be stuck in the building. There were so many ways that the situation could have been prevented. I’m glad that there has been regulations and laws that now help prevent situations like this to happen.

  • I remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire back in like middle school and it always baffled me how such a thing could happen and no one ever thought about preventing it or the possible outcomes of what could have happened if something like that were to happen in the first place. I remember seeing documentaries and videos over it and some of the commentary was just so sad to hear because those were people, the just wanted to make their money and instead they got caught in the fate of the factory itself. I’m just glad to see that they learned after having such an accident happen and created regulations to prevent something like this from happening again.

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