Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: A Turning Point for Labor in America

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 in New York City's Greenwich Village. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 in New York City’s Greenwich Village. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City.

Here are some things you may not have known about it.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village at the corner of Green Street and Washington Place.

The factory made women’s blouses known as shirtwaists. The workers in the factory were mostly young immigrant women, who worked 52 hours over six days for between $7 and $12 a week (the equivalent of $3.20-5.50 per hour today).

At about 4:40 p.m. on March 25, a fire began in a scrap bin beneath one of the cutting tables. The bin held about two months worth of scrap fabric. The fire marshal determined that a lit match or cigarette butt ended up in the bin. Smoking was banned in the factory, but employees would occasionally sneak cigarettes. The fire quickly raced upward from the eighth floor.

The building had no fire alarm, so the employees above were alerted to the fire when flames and smoke appeared. The building had two staircases, two freight elevators and a fire escape. One of the staircases was blocked by fire below, the other was locked to prevent theft and employees from taking unauthorized breaks. The foreman who had the key left the door locked and escaped by another route. The fire escape was of substandard construction and may have been broken before the fire.

Dozens of employees, including the factory owners found refuge by taking the unlocked stairs to the roof. Others took the elevators down to safety before they stopped working because of warped tracks caused by the heat of the fire. Within three minutes of the fire starting, the stairs were unusable in either direction. Many people crowded onto the fire escape which buckled and collapsed, sending 20 people plummeting 100 feet to the street below.

62 people jumped or fell to their deaths. One young man was seen kissing a young woman at the window before they both jumped. Life nets held by the firefighters were useless for people jumping from such heights.

A total of 146 people died from the fire: 123 women and 23 men. Causes of death included burns, asphyxiation and blunt impact trauma from hitting the sidewalk.

The company owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were tried on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but were acquitted. They were found liable for wrongful death and paid $75 per deceased victim. The owners filed an insurance claim and received about $60,000 more than their reported losses, roughly a $325 profit per death. Two years later, Blanck was again arrested for locking the door of his factory during operating hours. He was fined $20.

However, the fire did spur change. Tammany Hall legislators, known mostly for their corruption, backed several reforms that led to a shorter work week, fire prevention and suppression measures, and sanitary facilities for workers. It also saw the increase of the influence of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The last living survivor of the fire was Rose Freedman, who died in 2001 at the age of 107. She was 18 at the time of the fire. She survived by following the company owners to the roof.

Our question: The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is now part of the campus of what institution of higher education?

Today is Good Friday, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

It’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, National Lobster Newberg Day and International Waffle Day.

It’s the birthday of women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, musician Aretha Franklin and musician Elton John.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we will pick a year at random to feature.

This week in 1967, the top song in the U.S. was “Happy Together” by The Turtles.

The No. 1 movie was “In Like Flint,” while the novel “The Arrangement” by Elia Kazan topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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