On March 25, 1911, 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City died when the building in which they worked caught on fire. One of the most important events in American labor history, the Triangle Fire brought attention to the terrible sweatshop conditions of American labor, helped spawn important labor reforms, and became a touchstone for justice advocates over the next century.
The Triangle Factory, located in the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place in New York (today on the campus of NYU), was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, Jewish immigrants who had made their fortune as “The Shirtwaist Kings.” The shirtwaist, a necessity of women’s clothing during the late Victorian Era, was immensely profitable, but by 1911, the fashion was becoming outdated as American women moved toward modern fashion. In order to maximize profits in a trade with low start-up costs, Blanck and Harris took advantage of the enormous immigrant masses entering New York in the early twentieth century. They set up a sweatshop on 3 floors of the building and hired workers, mostly women, for very low pay. They also hired children. One corner of the factory was known as the “Kindergarten,” where young girls sat for 12 hours days snipping threads. The average working day for all workers was 12-14 hours at least 6 days a week. That included Saturday, which was important because 60% of the workers were Jewish women, as were their employers. During the peak production season, which was eight months of the year, the women were required to work all 7 days. A sign above the elevator read, “If You Don’t Come In On Sunday, Don’t Come In On Monday.”
Max Blanck and Thomas Harris
Blanck and Harris claimed they had earned their fortune by hard work and that other immigrants could do the same, although the obvious argument against that is that their primary good luck was arriving in New York earlier than most Jewish immigrants. When workers throughout the New York textile industry struck in the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909, Blanck and Harris stood their ground, criticizing smaller operations who signed contracts with the union, and asserting their right for complete control over the factory. Blanck and Harris hired prostitutes to act as strikebreakers, serving as escorts for scabs, and starting fights with the strikers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) focused its attention on Triangle, as it was the largest company and had the most union-hating employers. The Uprising of the 20,000 was generally a successful action, but Blanck and Harris held out until the end, agreeing to raise wages and slightly shorten hours, but without any sort of union on the factory floor.
The lack of a union mattered a great deal as workers had no representatives to improve their working conditions or enforce safety rules. Wanting maximum control over its workers, Blanck and Harris ordered all doors out of the factory locked except for one. On March 25, 1911, just as the long workday was ending, a fire broke out on the 8th floor and quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floor. The factory offices were on the 10th; Blanck and Harris escaped, getting to the roof and hopping to another building. Workers on the 8th floor got out. No one told workers on the 9th floor that the building was on fire. They didn’t know until the flames were licking their shoes. There were 250 workers on the 9th floor. A few managed to escape on the elevator, some more on a fire escape, at least until it collapsed from the weight of so many people. But 146 did not escape. They rushed to the second door, but found it locked. They desperately tried to open it but they couldn’t find the key and had to give up. They burned to death or jumped from the windows as a last resort. Fire department ladders only stretched to the 6th floor. Firefighters stretched nets to catch the jumpers, but they couldn’t handle the force of bodies falling from that height.
The tragedy of the Triangle Fire finally drew public attention to the plight of the sweatshop workers. ILGWU organizers and workers had predicted tragedies in the workplace, though not of this level, but, even though the Uprising of the 20,000 had received a good bit of public attention, little had happened since the strike to improve working conditions and safety. On April 5, 350,000 New Yorkers came out to the ILGWU-organized funeral of seven unidentified workers. New Yorkers quickly remembered that Blanck and Harris had been the most anti-union owners in 1909 and the public excoriated them. As textile leader and overall amazing woman Clara Lemlich said, “If Triangle had been a union shop there there would not have been any locked doors, and the girls would have been on the street almost an hour before the fire started.” One reporter noted, “I remembered the great strike of last year, in which the girls demanded more sanitary workrooms, and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies told the results.”
The public funeral of the Triangle workers.
City and state agencies responded to the public outrage by investigating the conditions of the textile industry and the state of the city’s sweatshops. They discovered that half the city’s workers labored higher than fire department ladders could reach, and most worked in factories with conditions far worse than Triangle, with iron bars blocking fire escapes, overcrowded conditions, and wooden rickety buildings. Governor John Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, led by Alfred Smith and Robert Wagner and including Frances Perkins. ILGWU leaders like Clara Lemlich demanded the commission accompany them on unscheduled factory visits to get the real story. Said Perkins, who personally witnessed the fire, “We made sure Robert Wagner personally crawled through the tiny hole in the wall that gave exit to a steep ladder covered with ice and ending twelve feet from the ground, which was euphemistically labeled ‘Fire Escape.’” The inspections created wide-reaching laws that began the reform of labor conditions in this country, including new standards for lighting, ventilation, and sanitation; fire exit laws, limiting the hours women and children could work, and reorganizing the state’s labor department.
Blanck and Harris had insured the heck out of the building and received nearly $200,000 from 41 different insurance companies. Shortly after the fire, they tried to open a new factory. Building inspectors fined them for lining up the sewing machines so close that “the girls when seated would have no space to move about or leave their places without all getting up together.” Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter on April 11 for keeping the back doors locked in the factory. They paid $25,000 bail each and hired one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, Max Steuer. They managed to delay the trial until December when jury selection began. But when that happened, 300 women met them at the door. Shouted one young girl, “Here are the murderers of poor Stella. Hit them, mamma, for killing my poor sister.” The women chanted “Murderers! Murderers! Kill the murderers!” From that point on, the police controlled the crowd. After the trial, the jury took only 105 minutes to deliver its verdict of not guilty since it could not determine with certainty whether Blanck and Harris knew the door was locked. In 1913, Blanck was in fact charged with locking the door to one of his new factories and was fined the minimum of $20. The following year, the two factory owners were fined for sewing fake consumer labels into their clothing saying the factory met minimum working standards.
In 1914, Blanck and Harris settled the civil suits against them, paying $75 for each life lost. This only made people more angry because BLANCK AND HARRIS HAD PROFITED OFF THE FIRE!!! Quite literally–they had so much insurance that they cleared $65,000 in profit off their factory burning and workers dying.
There is also this fascinating document I’d like to share with you. In 1912, the National Association of Manufacturers collaborated with the Thomas Edison Company to produce “The Crime of Carelessness.” This film tried to shift blame for Triangle away from the factory owners and toward worker carelessness. This was part of the NAM strategy to keep the factories union-free and a useful film for placing today’s anti-union madness in historical context. This is a truly disgusting film, though fascinating. Worth 14 minutes of your time.
Many of the quotes for this piece came from Jo Ann Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents, which is also a great book to teach.