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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61 Comments

  • The horror that these people had to face are unthinkable and it saddens me. It is a real life nightmare. These people are true heroes. This article was very informative and it is heartbreaking. The thing that bothers me the most about this incident is that everything could have been avoided. It is crazy to think that the workers were inside with locked doors the entire day. I guess it takes a tragedy like this one for people to learn from their mistakes and it is a very sad reality.

  • It is crazy how such a tragic event occurred, this article was very interesting and well written with such great detail. I do not think that I heard about this disaster growing up but thinking about it now I believe that it is great and smart to have all the rules and regulations placed in factories or any working facility today. By having this rules and regulations it ensures that nothing like this ever happens again. Overall, this article was great.

  • Previous to reading your article, I had no idea this event even happened. It makes me wonder what other tragedies have happened in our history that we have no idea about. One part of your article that really caught my attention was that the managers kept the exit doors locked from the outside. If those doors had been unlocked, many lives that day could have been saved.

  • The use of the images in this article really helps to hammer home the horror and dread of the disaster. The images were well selected to convey the overall tone of the article as one displaying a terrible accident caused by several little “hiccups” piling up into the disaster that claimed so many lives. I can only imagine how frightening it must have been to be there on that day.

  • Although I have never head of the disaster in the triangle shirtwaist factory, it is a very tragic event. It is all very sad, but it is always good when at least some positive things result from these kinds of tragedies. It is because of this event that more regulations were places on factories to prevent the same incidents from having to happen again. It is always better safe than sorry especially when working in such conditions and environments such as a factory’s.

  • Rereading this article I think what really struck me was how undeserving these people were of that terrible incident. They worked 50 hour weeks, 6 days a weak for small pay and were the primary laborers for their families. They worked so hard to earn so little and the unsafe and untrustworthy conditions of the factory ultimately led to their demise. It is really tragic.

  • This was such a tragic story, I remember learning about this in high school. It sad knowing that these women and men were treated so unfairly. They were treated like prisoners, locking the doors during the work day to prevent them from stealing, but not locking the door could of saved many lives. Working conditions have changed a lot, making it safer for employees so a tragedy like this does not happen again.

  • This article was very interesting. I had never heard of this fire before and i did not know that it caused so much death. This is interesting because i cannot believe the horrible conditions that these people worked in. Also there was no safety or precautions for something like this and it is ridiculous that the stair doors were locked. Great article.

  • Great article. I remember studying this in high school because it was such a tragic event that had long-reaching effects. It is a shame that these women were treated so poorly and so many had to die as a result of poor working conditions. But this is just another example of a how a it often takes a tragic event to make changes. It is good that so many people stepped up and demanded safer working conditions after this event and the government took notice.

  • What a great article, I was hooked the entire time. I had no prior knowledge of this topic, so it was a total learning experience for me. This was indeed a horrific event, I can’t imagine the pain of the families who lost loved ones. This really depicts how the working conditions of the 1900s were horrific. It got me thinking, are workers being protected better now? I really hope so. Great job!

  • Such a tragic event that could have ultimately been avoided. However, this event is important in more ways than one. It made the public push for more laws ensuring a safer working environment for factory workers. So out of all the bad with this incident there came good. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t have taken an incident like this to spark that kind of talk. If there were better regulations in place all those people wouldn’t have lost their lives. Such a shame that it always takes a tragic disaster to invoke change.

  • It is rather sad that it would take such a tragic disaster for there to be better safety conditions in these industrial factories. I found the first-hand account to be terrifying, to hear that these ladies would be singing happily getting reading for the weekend and just minutes later many of them would get engulfed in flames. Excellent article, very interesting topic; job well done.

  • This was the second time I have read this article, it was honestly just as heart breaking reading it the second time as it was the first time. In my last comment I talked about before how much of a tragedy it was to think about all of the families that were left behind. However I would like to point out this time around how well written this article was. It gave us as readers a since of how it was when this horrible tragedy accrued.

  • What a tragic story. I love that you start your story in the action, it really captivated my attention. It’s very sad that the factory owners really had no concern of these workers safety. If the doors would have been able to open then many more people could have escaped this deadly fire. It’s also quite sad that people just started jumping out of windows hoping to survive… Very heartbreaking story.

  • An extremely well written and put together article. It just makes absolutely no sense to me why something tragic seems to happen to make the public aware of the situation. Not only was this preventable if the build was in working condition, but if there is rust on something so important like the water hose it’s a sign to fix it.

  • The Triangle Fire is a very tragic and important moment in America’s history. What I really loved about this article is how you took us through the event and showed how they were really trapped in there. I also liked how you used that to connect the fire to workers rights, along with the quote from the woman who worked there and the pictures you used. Overall this was a really great look into a sad and historic day in America.

  • This was a very tragic story to read about. The fact that so many workers had to jump out the windows knowing they were going to die either way is so sad. This story goes to show that the use of immigrant workers and their working conditions need to be greatly improved. They were working crazy hours with very little pay in an unsafe environment. It is sad that 146 people lost their lives before changes were made to this kind of work. Overt time I’m sure working conditions have been improved but are still not up to where they should be.

  • This event was unfortunate to have occurred. However, it did help bring light to the factories in New York. If the owners had not locked the door then more people could have gotten out. Also, if someone had made sure that the hose did not rust the fire could have been put out. This article was very well written and interesting.

  • Although this event was extremely sad, you did a great job at writing and constructing this article. also knowing that it took for something so devastating to take place just to finally have something done about the safety in working conditions is mind blowing. if people would have planned ahead and thought that tragedies like this can happen at anytime maybe so many people wouldn’t have lost their lives.

  • As soon as I read “man-made disaster,” I knew I had to read this article. Although the end of this incident was optimistic, it was an unfortunate event, and it is sad that it was done to prove a point. The disaster certainly sparked the need for better working environments to be ensured, but it is devastating that so many people had to lose their lives. This article was extremely well-written and I could tell the research was spectacular.

  • Well written article, the emotion of this event was undoubtedly shown within the style of your writing and the pictures you selected. It is devastating to learn that such a small incident can turn into something causing so much death and destruction. However, this unfortunate occurrence does really make you appreciate the rules and regulations we have today concerning fire safety.

  • I can briefly remember going over this event in a previous history class. Although it is very tragic many people died due to unsafe working conditions, it did lead to a reform that would prevent this from ever happening again. This is a very well written article. The picture truly add dimension to the article and provide the reader with a view of the fire and the aftermath.

  • Such a tragic and interesting event. Though I knew about this event, reading the article gave me an even more clear image of it. So many things could have been done to prevent from so many people dying. The elevators that were not working and the exit doors being unlocked. It is hard to imagine people willing to jump out of windows to save their lives, only to get hurt either way.

  • I had no previous knowledge of this topic but was immediately drawn in by the title of the article and knew that I had to read it. I think that it is extremely tragic what happened in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The loss of 123 women and 23 men is not the result of some subtle office damage, but of a heartbreaking accident due to many flaws located in that specific factory accompanied by various safety measures that were not taken. This article was great in telling the events that occurred in New York, but also in its conclusion reminding the readers that the result of this will never be forgotten and opened up a new realm of importance partaking safety in the workplace.

  • Great article! I have never heard of this story before. What a tragedy happen back in Asch Building at Washington Place in Greenwich Village. It is amazing lesson of life to always put safety first after all. It is sad to heard the dead of 136 people. Great article and good job making the flow of the story. Keep it up with the great work!

  • This is just a tragedy! Left and right of this building showed no health and safety standards what so ever. In today’s society we have come to the point that corporations and business just make this a race to find the cheapest labor and when they do they do not worry about the safety conditions but how much money they are profiting off of it. This article is a great article touching on this disastrous event. It’s a shame what happened.

  • This was such a great article but a very tragic and awful incident it was. It makes a whole more sense as to why there are all these rules and regulations at factories so that nothing like this would have to the opportunity to occur again. Although it was a horrible event it was also a good one so that the law would be forced to enhance the safety precautions of all factories. This article was very descriptive and did very well showing that at anytime any thing can change.

  • Great article, I remember reading about this awhile back and it was so devastating. The fact that they don’t get paid that much for the countless hours they work is unbelievable. Most importantly how could they even let people work in that building knowing the condition it was in. The elevator broken, the hose rusted and wouldn’t work, the door to the stairs all these conditions scream about a disaster waiting to happen. It so sad that this had to happen for people to notice that the conditions weren’t right. If only they could have realized some work regulations need to be placed so they could have saved the workers lives.

  • This was such a tragic incident, that all could’ve potentially been avoided if the company had checked and made sure they were in a safe environment. Sadly, they obviously did not seem to care and let these innocent hard working people lose their life due to the company’s fault. This was a well written article, and it truly opened up the past and how we should be thankful that we have rules and regulations in place to ensure the safety of their workers.

  • I wonder if this particular situation is the reason why there are so many fire exits and extinguishers in buildings now. That sucks that this fire would happen on such a good day, did they ever find the person responsible for this fire? I could only imagine seeing people jump from a ten story building and falling to their death. Not just one person, but 67 in the span of the fire. This is a crazy article, and a very well written one at that. Great work.

  • One of the most common remembrances when hearing about this time in history was the unfortunate fate of those in the burning building who succumbed to jumping out the windows. This was interesting to read about again. But it was sad to read that of the four elevators only one was working. With such a tragic subject it was written with a sympathetic tone that made the article that much more interesting.

  • This is such a tragedy and it honestly makes me very sad that so many lives were lost in such a way. It is too hard to even think about the people in this situation, and that so many jumped to their death is terrifying. It angers me that so many could have been saved if the working conditions had been better. I understand that owners are worried for theft, but locking people away is cruel and inhumane. This could have all been prevented if there was better management, and I will always remember the victims.

  • I vaguely remember reading of this once, but it’s a shame to know that so many died completing such a trivial task. The worst part is being that it was mostly women, many mothers weren’t making it home that day. This is why we have laws and regulations regarding the safety of workers now. If anything, owners are most concerned with this now more than ever, because they risk losing so much. Even though the worry nowadays can be out of selfishness, things are better now and that’s great.

  • Great article! I think I remember talking about this in high school as a history topic. Terrible event that happened at the time and it was going to sooner or later. The conditions those people worked in and how the owners neglected them, was just terrible. When it comes to incidents like such, I can’t help but speculate, what if the owners themselves started the fire. If I recall correctly, one of the quotes taken from a survivor did say that they were getting paid that day. Of course I hope that wasn’t the case, but it does make you speculate.

  • I have never heard about this terrible disaster before, to read it was heart breaking. To think of how many people were lost and the families that were left behind, I can’t even image. Of course it is a great thing to learn from the past that that history may not repeat it self, but still sad to think of all the lives lost for us to learn. In the end this was a great article and a great way keep those who were lost in our memory.

  • This was such a gripping yet, tragic and heart-breaking event. In their efforts of survival, they still coming up short-handed. They were just trying to make a decent living, and something very unfortunate happened. It is outrageous of how a cigarette could cause such a disaster. It is a tragedy that it would take such an occurrence to enforce more concrete safety regulations so tragedies, or unnecessary deaths would occur anymore.

  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is one of the most well known and deadliest industrial disasters in the early 20th century in United States history. Your article was well written and was very informative. It is so sad that many migrant women lost their lives due to the bosses locking them inside to prevent theft, but that just caused even worse outcomes. Overall, good work on the article and keep up the good work!

  • As there was no mention of it, I am curious to know if there were no other doorways that at least lead to the 6th floor so they could exit through the windows there. Plus, why did no one try to open the locked door? Was no one aware of the situation? Nonetheless, I am sad that such an event had to occur just so people could become more aware of the most dangerous things to them, this could even be said about many things that are going on today.

  • I had not heard of this catastrophe before but after this i realise how shocking this really was. Its awful that there was no problem health and safety rules in factories at these times because if there was something like this could never have happened. This in detailed review of this horrific disaster really shed light on how our modern rules has helped the work place. Great article

  • Very interesting article! I have actually read a book related to this event in history, it was called “Ashes of Roses” by Mary Jane Auch. This event was so heartbreaking, and showed the horrific working conditions of the young people in the factory. It is awful to even think about people jumping from the buildings in order to escape the fire. Although this was a horrendous moment in American history, I am glad that we bettered our working conditions so that we are now safe in our working in environments so this won’t happen again.

  • This event was heart breaking. It is truly horrifying that there was a time where rules and regulations where not in place in factories. The fact that companies would be fine with sacrificing the safety of it’s workers for saving money is disturbing. I am glad that over the course of time workers are now in a better state of well being at work. Though more needs to be done to help workers, It is great to know that an event like this will not be recreated.

  • Before this article, I didn’t know that the events that took place that day had even happened. However it is not surprising to me that this event occurred because back then the workers were not treated fairly and apparently not given good safety procedures. If the building had working elevators, more fire escapes, or the doors were able to open than all of the lives could have been save. It is a shame that in order for good change to happen something bad must first occur.

  • Josselyn Arrieta-Meraz tells the story of a devastating event in American history. The triangle shirtwaist factory fire is a memorable event in the industrial industry world as it brought attention to fire hazards and the importance of worker’s safety. The author is objective and describes the tragedy without being too cruel or inconsiderate. Arrieta-Meraz created an interesting yet captivating article.

  • I remember hearing about this story back in middle school. Everyone was shocked because today things like that would never happen. Mainly because we have so many work place policies that nothing can ever go wrong anymore. It is sad that this had to happen just to get people to realize the dangers of smoking inside and even not having effective exit strategies. I can’t imagine something like that happening today unless it was an actual attack like on 9/11.

  • It’s truly sad the horror those men and women had to experience. Also, how it takes these terrible circumstances in order to finally draw light to issues such as work conditions and safety precautions. These people should be remembered and that day as a lesson in always making sure factories and other manufacturing shops are designed with something more in mind than just profit and putting people to work.

  • This article is both great and heartbreaking. It is disappointing to know that many lives were lost in factories for companies to pay more attention to the safety of their workers. It truly is heartbreaking to read how people were even jumping out of the building in order to try and save themselves by being burned to death in the fire. The featured image really caught my attention and made me realize that it was in New York.

  • Great article. I really liked the way how you have structured you article. Also, your title really attracted my attention. It is really sad and depressing to know about this event. It was depressing to read that the firefighters could not help the workers and many died in the process. Overall, this article does a great job of showing how bad the working conditions were. To sum it up, it was good read.

  • This was a very interesting topic, the form of writing is so smooth to read and it is easy to be interested in it. It is truly horrible the high amount of deaths and more than that the way of their deaths. I think the factory should have paid the woman there, but I also get that those were different time.

  • This was a very well written article. I like the way you organized it because you did it very well. I have never heard of this ever and it is truly sad what happened that day. 123 women and 23 men perished that day and even jumped out the building. That part really made me sad because of the image it put into my head.

  • What a sad story. It is terrible that it was until this event happened that consciousness about safety on the workplace and working conditions in factories arose. It was terrible that the doors to the stairs were locked, only one of the four elevators worked and only fire escape collapsed. This event also may have had some effect on the fire department in the reconsideration of their equipment, since they could’t reach the factory with their ladders.

  • It is truly sad and unfortunate that this event happened, but it’s even more sickening to know that in order for people to realize that the working conditions were beyond horrible, a fire had to break out and be the cause of many deaths. Keeping workers locked inside a building in general is wrong and then to basically force them to work, treating them as if they were slaves is inhumane. However, had this tragic incident not occur, we may not have the rules and regulations that ensure our health and safety today.

  • This is an awful event in history and, due to the good quality of the article, it was painful to read about. The lack of preparation for a disaster such as this seems ridiculous now, but I am sure that nobody was considering something such as this happening when it had never occurred before. In the end, although it was a terrible loss, it seems that all precautionary inventions like fire escapes and such are invented only after it is proven that they are needed.

  • The men and women who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire should be revered as heroes. They suffered through a horrific death but out of their deaths came change. It’s a shame that it took a tragedy for change to be enacted, but that seems to be how it usually goes. Your story was interesting, well written and well researched. I loved the pictures you chose to accompany your article. They added a visually powerful message to accompany the sadness within your article.

  • A perfectly written and well put together article that kept we wanting to read more. I will never understand how something terrible always needs to happen for people to realize something needs to be changed. These poor women worked hard all week and were even in a good mood because the work day was almost over. This tragedy could have been avoided if the company had taken the time to do maintenance on things that were obviously broken. When there is enough rust to make something fall apart it is not exactly hiding from the naked eye.

  • Its sad how an event as tragic as this had to happen in order to bring attention to the working conditions in factories back in the 1900s. It sucks how only one of the four elevators worked and the other escape exits collapsed before they could get people out of the building. The fact that people were jumping out of the windows just to fall to their deaths shows the fear of the workers going through such a terrifying event. Overall, this article does a great job of showing how bad the working conditions were and how immigrant workers were being treated at the time, and what it took to bring awareness to the issue.

  • It’s a very tragic event that impacted our current society. Although very sad and unfortunate for all the lives lost, many people working labor are now much safer and have more regulations to properly do their job without causing a catastrophic event, much like the fire. In my opinion, I believe that there is more that can be implemented in the work force to ensure absolute safety but I know that there are sufficient regulations in certain areas. What is very astonishing is the wage to hour ratio during that time and how much immigrants were taken advantage of.

  • This is such a sad story, its truly awful to think about what the workers trapped inside went through before they died. I can’t believe that out of four elevators only one was working, and the one that was working only held 12 people. I think its unfortunate that it took something as terrible as this to make people to really notice how bad the working conditions were in these factories. Really great article about a really sad story.

  • I remember sitting in my high school history class and hearing of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and thinking “what tragedy, how could such a horrible incident could happen?” It’s sad that it takes a tragedy to set the ball rolling on an issue. The incident shows you that within seconds or a small action can change everything. Great descriptive article!

  • Quite unfortunate that this had to happen to send a message, however, to be optimistic, it’s good this has happened. It seems that this spurred the United States government to not have a slavery incident again and actually take care of its citizens. The lack of fire escapes and deplorable working conditions shows that what even happens today (though not as awful) happened over one hundred years ago.

  • Although it was a tragic event it was an important event that sparked the need for laws that ensure a safe work environment. It is sad that 146 people had to loose there lives working in a textile company for change to occur within the industry. Working conditions have since been improves which is the change that needed to happen in order to keep workers safe and prevent another event like this occurring.

  • I remember hearing about this terrible disaster in high school but never in this much detail. It makes me thankful for all the rules and regulations placed on factories so that these sort of tragedies never happen again. To us now it seems ridiculous to lock doors during the work day or have them open towards the inside but it was because of this I’m sure that it all changed.

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