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

By Karen Harris
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.