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.
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.
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
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.
- Ric Burns, “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 24, 1999. ↩
- Jonathan Fink, “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” TriQuarterly, no, (2009): 135-136. ↩
- Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, s.v. “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Albert Marrin, Flesh and blood so cheap: The Triangle fire and its legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 23-25. ↩