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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911
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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in New York City on March 25, 1911. It is the worst industrial disaster in the history of the city. The Triangle Shirtwaist company occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th stories of a 10 story building overlooking Washington Square, what is today known as the Asch building. The company manufactured women's blouses, which at the time were referred to as "shirtwaists" or simply "waists." The 500 employees, mostly immigrant Jewish, Italian, and German girls, were looking forward to finishing their work and heading out into a mild spring evening. The fire began around 4:40 p.m. on the 8th floor cutting room. It appears likely that someone threw a lit match or cigarette into a pile of remnants. Many factories, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, routinely locked their workers into their spaces to limit distractions, to keep out union organizers, and to allow for the searching of girls as they exited--a preventive measure against the theft of sewing materials. As the fire quickly spread and the exit doors were found to be locked, panicked workers sought other means of exit. Those on the 10th floor managed to escape, helped across the roof to an adjoining building by students from New York University. Most workers on the 8th floor were able to escape by the elevators, until the intense heat put them out of service. Workers on the 9th floor were trapped. The fire escape collapsed, sending several workers plunging to their deaths, and cutting off the only other means of escape. The Fire Department arrived within minutes, but even their most sophisticated equipment could not reach the upper floors, and their nets broke with the first jumpers. Facing certain death by fire, immigrant girls began jumping off of the 9th floor to the sidewalk below. Eventually, scores of girls crowded onto the ledge took each other by the hand and jumped off the building to their deaths. Some were impaled on the iron fence below.

It was over in less than fifteen minutes. One hundred forty-eight died, mostly from jumping. Charred, headless bodies were found piled near the exit door, while others were still hunched over their sewing machines. The bodies were taken down to the pier for a grisly identification process that took three days.

An outpouring of grief and support climaxed with a funeral for the unidentified. Several hundred thousand mourners joined in the procession in a driving rain, while several hundred thousand more looked on from the sidewalks.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire came on the heels of several years of efforts to bring about reform in the garment industry. In 1909, a large strike of women, makes of women's garments, went on strike to protest working conditions in what became known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. The immigrant girls were joined on the picket lines by some higher society women who were politicized by the suffrage issue, but a bitter winter and dwindling resources soon took its toll. This strike was followed by a large strike involving the makers of men's garments and cloaks, which forced the company owners to the bargaining table. Few concessions were won there, however, and some companies, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, had refused to sign the agreement at all.

Following the fire, the owners of the company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were charged with manslaughter. To the shock and disbelief of many, they were acquitted, largely because the prosecution failed to prove that the two men knew the exit doors were locked at the time of the fire. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20. In 1914, they were ordered by a judge to pay damages of $75 each to the families of twenty-three victims who had sued.

The fire did prompt the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission of 1911. The Commission gathered testimony, and ultimately established the Bureau of Fire Investigation under the direction of Robert F. Wagner, which gave the fire department additional powers to improve factory safety.

Eyewitness Accounts
sound Max Hochfield, January 20, 1957; interviewed by Sigmund Arywitz, California State Commissioner of Labor, California.
sound Dora Maisler, April 12, 1957; interviewed by Sigmund Arywitz, California State Commissioner of Labor, California.
sound Pauline Pepe, March 19, 1986
sound Francis Perkins, former Secretary of Labor, 1964; lecture at Cornell University
sound Pauline Newman, c.1980, interviewed by Joan Morrison
 
Photographs & Newspapers
Photograph: Sweatshop Conditions
Photograph: Sweatshop Conditions
Photograph: Sweatshop Conditions
Photograph: Sweatshop Conditions
Workers Preparing For a Strike
Workers Preparing For a Strike
Asch Building, Washington Square
Asch Building, Washington Square
Asch Building, Washington Square
Asch Building, Washington Square
Asch Building, Corner of Green & Washington
Asch Building, Corner of Green & Washington
Firefighters Racing To The Scene
Firefighters Racing To The Scene
Firefighters
Firefighters
Crowds At The Scene
Crowds At The Scene
Crowds At The Scene
Crowds At The Scene
Hole in Glass Sidewalk Skylight Where a Body Went Through
Hole in Glass Sidewalk Skylight Where a Body Went Through
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Bodies on the Sidewalk
Twisted Ruins of Failed Fire Escape
Twisted Ruins of Failed Fire Escape
Charred Human Remains in Elevator
Charred Human Remains in Elevator
Locked Exit Door
Locked Exit Door
Ruins of the Triangle Shop
Ruins of the Triangle Shop
Ruins of the Triangle Shop
Ruins of the Triangle Shop
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier (2 views)
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
At the Makeshift Morgue on the Pier
Newspaper Headline, New York Herald, March 26, 1911
Newspaper Headline, New York Herald, March 26, 1911
Mourning Workers
Mourning Workers
Asch Building, Modern Views
Asch Building, Modern Photos (2 views)
Sidewalk Chalk Honoring Victims, 2008
Sidewalk Chalk Honoring Victims, 2008 (3 views)
   
 
Political Cartoons
Death in the Smoke
Death in the Smoke, source and artist unknown
Locking in the workers
Locking in the workers, source and artist unknown
The Locked Door
The Locked Door, source and artist unknown
Girls Jumping, New York Journal
Girls Jumping, New York Journal, by Thomas A. Dorgan (TAD)
"This is one of a hundred murdered," New York Journal
"This is one of a hundred murdered," New York Journal, by Thomas A. Dorgan (TAD)
Lowering Bodies, New York Journal
Lowering Bodies, New York Journal, by Thomas A. Dorgan (TAD)
Inspectors of Buildings
Inspectors of Buildings, source and artist unknown
How Soon Will They All Be Forgotten?, New York Journal
How Soon Will They All Be Forgotten?, New York Journal, by Thomas A. Dorgan (TAD)
   
 
Other Popular Culture
Educational Card, from the "Story of America" Set, 1979
Educational Card, from the "Story of America" Set, 1979 (2 views)
Educational Card, 1995, by Grolier
Educational Card, 1995, by Grolier (2 views)
Painting by Joseph Gatto
Painting by Joseph Gatto, Museum of the City of New York
Postcard From the Museum of Famous People
Postcard From the Museum of Famous People (2 views)
 
 
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Last modified July 12, 2012