Skip to content

Commemorating the Triangle Fire

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. 146 people, mainly immigrant women, some as young as 14 years old, died when a fire broke out on the top three floors of a garment factory at the corner of Greene and Washington Place, just off Washington Square Park in New York City.

A year before, the women of Triangle Shirtwaist had led a city-wide strike of 20,000 garment workers to protest crowded, unsafe working conditions and low wages. The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist, recent immigrants themselves, opposed organized labor and fought back against the strikers’ demands.

New York at the time was an important center of textile manufacturing. Manhattan alone had more than 450 textile factories, which employed some 40,000 workers. Many of them, like the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, were recent immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia and Hungary. Factory owners were under intense competitive pressure to keep productivity up and costs low. It was not uncommon for garment workers to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for less than $4 a week.

Ironically, the Triangle building was considered a model of modern safety standards, compared to the dark and crowded working conditions of tenement apartment sweatshops common at the time. Triangle was a “fireproof” building, with freight elevators, high ceilings and windows that allowed light onto the factory floor.

The fire that began at 4:30 pm 100 years ago today started on the 8th floor and spread quickly upwards, igniting machine oil and flammable piles of cotton scraps and shirtwaists on the factory floor. The workers rushed to escape but found the main stairs chained shut (the bosses didn’t want them taking breaks or stealing shirts and routinely searched them before they could leave the building.) While some made it out via the single freight elevator, others were pushed to their deaths in the elevator shaft. The flimsy fire escape came unmoored from the building in the heat, killing many more.

Firemen could do little to help, since ladders at that time reached only as far as the 6th floor. The women trapped on the 9th floor began to jump out the windows, and the nets the firemen were holding were ripped uselessly from their hands by the weight of the bodies falling from such a great height. Thousands of New Yorkers out for a Saturday stroll though Washington Square Park witnessed the horrible scene.

The factory owners on the top floor escaped out the roof and onto an adjacent building. They stood trial for criminal manslaughter but were acquitted; the jury wasn’t convinced that the owners knew the exit doors were locked.

Still, the consequences of the fire were far-reaching. Public outrage led to more than 30 new laws passed within two years, creating new standards for minimum wages and maximum hours, encouraging collective bargaining, and addressing all the safety failures at the Triangle Factory.

The Triangle Factory building now houses the NYU Chemistry and Biology Departments. A plaque from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union reads:

On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist company fire on March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor regulation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.

The fire was a terrible tragedy. But today we can be thankful for 100 years of development and public safety regulation that prevent workplace disasters like this one in New York City.


Photos: 1,2,3,4,5 taken by the author with permission at “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: One Hundred Years After” at NYU Open House; 6 taken by the author on March 24, 2011.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in History, In the news. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

8 Comments

  1. Tommy wrote:

    Great to see that you’re remembering the Triangle fire too. It was a sad day but I hope the sewing community is now in better hands. We’ve shared our thoughts too on our blog…

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink
  2. joe wrote:

    Even if the ‘sewing community’ is in safer, better hands in Manhattan, it is a bit irrelevant when so much clothing is produced in countries with much poorer safety standards. Sadly, these kinds of accidents still happen in some countries that are producing clothing for export.

    On an unrelated topic, Bill, I am looking forward to a rant about Madonna and the Malawi school fiasco.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  3. Word_Bandit wrote:

    “usual @aidwatch problem: rants get large readership, thoughtful essays like today’s: not http://bit.ly/frWgoG

    No. The thoughtful are just a bit busy for comments today.

    Thanks, Laura. Appreciate the remembrance ….

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  4. Word_Bandit wrote:

    Rhetorically, this entry would have been stronger, in my opinion, without the sing-song conclusion.

    A simple memorial without an ode to “progress” would have served these women workers better …..

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  5. fatbear wrote:

    Nice to see the day commemorated, but the “it can’t happen again” tone is way off, as are some facts – e.g., the fire escape was never completed, and therefore collapsed under the weight of those using it, sending them to their deaths – and the passenger elevators also saved dozens until they were overcome by the weight of the bodies on their roofs and could no longer lift

    Go take a look at today’s post on Naked Capitalism for more
    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/03/buzz-potamkin-still-getting-away-with-murder-manslaughter.html

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Carol wrote:

    Nice post, and glad to see the tragedy remembered. Thankfully, it’s true, we’ve made great progress. We’ve moved all the potential (and often actual) similar tragedies overseas.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  7. Nice to see that you are remembering the Triangle fire too. But tt was a very painful day but the good things is that the sewing community is now in better hands. We’ve shared our thoughts too on our blog…

    Posted March 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Seth Brooks wrote:

    We talked about this yesterday in my Election Law class and about the importance in brought about it development and unions. The sad thing is that things like this today are still happening in other factories around the world, many from which we as Americans buy the products of. In the scheme of development outside the U.S., outsourcing of American jobs to overseas companies creates new job opportunities in areas where jobs were once scarce. The problem is that codes and regulations are also seemingly a lot more laxed in these areas and labor is cheap and conditions can be down right horrid. As a planner, one may see this as what it’s worth, new jobs to help devolp an undeveloped area, where as a searcher may look to see what the people want to gain from these jobs. Personally, I feel that if we support these companies by purchasing their goods, we should also as a customer demand that the conditions and safety measures these people work in be set at a standard. That way it will not only help foster a healthy environment for development, but also foster a sense of dignity and safety.

    Posted April 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

5 Trackbacks

  1. [...] the original post: Commemorating the Triangle Fire AKPC_IDS += [...]

  2. [...] Lauri Freschi provides a good summary of the events surrounding the fire as well as photos from the New York University exhibition “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: One Hundred Years After.” Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations has made available a selection of primary and second documents concerning the fire. [...]

  3. [...] Freschi on Aid Watch commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire in New York, which killed 146 people and ended up transforming US labour [...]

  4. [...] Link to the original site Posted in Aid SHARE THIS Twitter Facebook Delicious StumbleUpon E-mail « Malaria, past and present No Comments Yet [...]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Recent Comments

  • Archives