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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: How American Business Learned A Grim Lesson

1910s | June 1, 2021

Family members arrive at the New York City morgue to identify the bodies of victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire that killed 146 factory workers, mainly young immigrant women, on the Lower East Side in the garment district. (Getty Images)

Worker safety was not exactly a priority in the Industrial Age factories of the early 20th century, when many businesses sacrificed employee comfort and safety for the ever-important bottom line. It took a massive tragedy to spark public outcry and force the government to establish regulations to keep workers safe on the job.

Before The Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factorylocated at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan, comprised the top three floors of the high-rise building, containing row upon row of sewing machines crammed together. As the name suggests, the factory mass produced shirts and other ready-made garments. Its employees, mostly young immigrant women, manned the machines for 12 hours a day, six days a week for about $15 per week.

The factory was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, a pair who had a reputation for cutting corners and skirting employee rights. In an effort to prevent their workers from sneaking out for breaks, their only reprieve from the stifling heat inside the factory, Blanck and Harris locked all but one of the doors from the outside. They also secured all the windows shut and disabled all but one of the four elevators leading to the factory from the ground floor, forcing employees to climb a narrow staircase every day to get to their workstations. They also seemed uncommonly flammable, having endured a series of fires at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and other factories they owned, which they may or may not have set themselves. In fact, they adamantly refused to install sprinkler systems in their factories or take other fire prevention measures, according to rumors, in case they needed to torch the place.

The building's south side, with windows from which workers jumped marked X. (The New York Times/Wikimedia Commons)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, approximately 600 workers were toiling in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory when a bin full of rags caught fire. Several of the workers alerted the manager, who tried to extinguish the flames with the building's fire hose, but no water came out. The valve was rusted shut, and the hose had dry rot. The employees then tried to evacuate through the single working elevator, but since it could only carry 12 people at a time, it would have taken hours to transport all the workers to the ground floor. Not that it mattered: After just four trips, the elevator broke down. Many of the young women who were desperately waiting for their turn in the elevator tried to escape the flames by jumping down the elevator shaft to their deaths.

Most of the other workers tried to flee using the stairs, cramming into the crowded staircase and fighting their way to the bottom only to find that the door was locked, preventing their escape. The door of the only staircase that wasn't locked opened inward, so no one could open it amidst the mob of workers. Blanck and Harris, along with several workers who were with them on the building's top floor, escaped to the roof of the adjoining building.

Faced with the horror of burning to death, many of the women trapped inside the building chose to leap from the roof or windows. In fact, the sheer number of falling bodies hampered the firefighters when they arrived on the scene, obstructing their hoses, trucks, and ladders. They set up a safety net to catch the jumpers, but when three women jumped at the same time, the net ripped under their weight. Amazingly, about 460 people managed to escape the fire with their lives, but 146 weren't so lucky. In total, 58 jumped to their deaths, 36 were found in the elevator shaft, 49 died in the stairwells, and the rest died the next day in the hospital.

People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York City. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The Aftermath Of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

It wasn't uncommon for shady business owners to set their own factories ablaze to collect the insurance money whenever their product went out of style, but it's unlikely Blanck and Harris started fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. All the other fires in their factories occurred when the buildings were closed and no one was inside; they might have been heartless, but they weren't murderers, probably. They did stand trial for manslaughter, but they were only found liable for wrongful death.

More importantly, public outcry forced New York City to pass the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law seven months after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The law established universal safety standards for factories, including the use of sprinklers systems and fire extinguishers, well-labeled and unblocked exits, and routine safety inspections. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire may have ended in tragedy, but it ultimately saved lives.

Tags: 1910s | fire | labor movement

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.