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This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1911

[ 53 ] March 25, 2012 |

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of women’s clothing during the late Victorian Era, was immensely profitable, but by 1911, the fashion was becoming outdated as American women moved toward modern fashion.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.

This series has also covered such events as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the creation of the CIO in 1935.

Comments (53)

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  1. DrDick says:

    And libertarians wonder why we have worker and consumer protection laws. We have the government regulations we do owing to the ongoing abuses by business. We have regulatory complexity largely owing to efforts by well funded industry groups to carve out exceptions and minimize the impacts of said regulations. Without those regulations, reading Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair would be like a vision of paradise.

    • BradP says:

      And libertarians wonder why we have worker and consumer protection laws.

      No they don’t. Hire guys with weapons to make sure people don’t do really, really bad shit is not exactly the most nuanced or complicated solution here.

      Libertarians generally point to the inefficiencies, stagnation, costs, and inevitable capture of regulatory systems. Then they pose alternatives that might or would probably arise under a system based upon free association.

      Do the arguments get bastardized by self-interested twits like Mitt Romney (and, yes, the Koch brothers)? Sure. But you would be hard-pressed to find many progressive arguments and legislations that haven’t also been co-opted by the elite class to entrench and steady their rentier position.

      We have regulatory complexity largely owing to efforts by well funded industry groups to carve out exceptions and minimize the impacts of said regulations.

      Completely agreed, but its entirely unfair to blame that on libertarians. I know you would like to pass it off as if progressives pass good and just laws, and the no good libertarians come in and gut them. But history, long and recent, shows a very consistent meeting of goals amongst progressives and the titans of industry and finance.

      Without those regulations, reading Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair would be like a vision of paradise.

      Sometimes I get the impression of a bizarro Randian view of the world from progressives, where the players are no less fantastic, but the ethical roles are played. In both, it seems like the masses are but peons waiting for a hero.

      I mean societies with far less resources, freedoms, and safety than we have can topple dictators armed with Blackberrys and Twitter. But American society would be powerless to confront a sweatshop in New York City.

      The details of this are an indictment of the government regulatory response. Blanck was able to parry the extreme public outrage over his criminal negligence down to a $20 fine a couple years later.

      • DrDick says:

        Completely agreed, but its entirely unfair to blame that on libertarians.

        Just pointing out the consequences of implementing your vision of how the world should work.

        Sometimes I get the impression of a bizarro Randian view of the world from progressives, where the players are no less fantastic

        In other words, you simply do not want to deal with the reality of how capitalists actually behave and how corporations operate. Corporations, regardless of the SCOTUS’s delusions, are not people and are therefore inherently amoral. A corporation exists to make a profit and a successful businessman, whether owner or manager, is one who maximizes that profit and they are rewarded only for that. This creates incentives toward amoral or even immoral behavior.

        • BradP says:

          Just pointing out the consequences of implementing your vision of how the world should work.

          I’m sorry, but creating a complex morrass of regulation, then providing extensive carve outs to corporations and organizations with enough political connections to curry favorable treatment from legislators and regulators is not really a fair representation of my “vision”.

          In light of the bailouts of the financial and automotive sectors, as well as the increasingly confusing and murky corporate handout of a health care reform we get to endure, it seems to represent the progressive vision more.

          In other words, you simply do not want to deal with the reality of how capitalists actually behave and how corporations operate. Corporations, regardless of the SCOTUS’s delusions, are not people and are therefore inherently amoral. A corporation exists to make a profit and a successful businessman, whether owner or manager, is one who maximizes that profit and they are rewarded only for that. This creates incentives toward amoral or even immoral behavior.

          Not sure where that came from or how it is a response to the portion you quoted.

          My point was about the relationship and importance of the masses versus the elite. You seem no less reverential of those at the top and dismissive of those at the bottom than Rand. Your worldviews both seem dependent upon unrealistic savior types.

          What will we do when all of our top policy wonks go Warren and build their own paradise?

          • John Protevi says:

            Brad, it’s about institutional reform — incentivizing different behaviors — not about saviors. Regulatory capture is not all or nothing; there are better and worse eras of regulation; and the current bad era of it has more to do with revolving doors and underfunding of regulatory agencies than it has to do with a metaphysics of “government” — i.e., with your a priori assumption that all government everywhere is prone to the kind of regulatory capture we see today, after 30 years of neoliberal assault.

            • BradP says:

              Regulatory capture is not all or nothing

              Of course it isn’t all or nothing, but the fact of the matter is that many regulators and legislators have a great deal of minimally checked economic power.

              That will always carry decidedly bad incentives, whether the individual is a private businessman or a public servant.

              and the current bad era of it has more to do with revolving doors and underfunding of regulatory agencies

              I will agree with the former, Bush was absolutely terrible with his appointees. I will not agree with the latter, as the funding was there (and last decreased by Clinton), it just went through ineffective and regressive channels.

              I just don’t see how Bush’s cronyism or Obama’s revolving door with the financial sector is not largely explainable by the “metaphysics of government.”

              i.e., with your a priori assumption that all government everywhere is prone to the kind of regulatory capture we see today,

              I do think all government is prone to “regulatory capture”, or at its base, the exclusion of the lower classes from political channels by the elite. I don’t think that is controversial. When the difference between horrible (Bush) and decent (Obama) is Paulson and Geithner, there are some enormous systematic problems involved. I will admit that my knowledge of the events of that golden age are a little fuzzy to me, but how far back do you have to go to find a Secretary of the Treasury who didn’t have extraordinary suspect motivations and values?

              And I have been pretty explicit all along that I think shorter and more decentralized government would be bound by better incentives than distant, centralized government.

              • DrDick says:

                The point is that your goal of removing all regulation would simply make everything infinitely worse. Go read some Gilded Age history to see what real laissez faire capitalism looks like (or you could just go read Dickens and Sinclair).

  2. JDCorley says:

    Another reason the proprietors were acquitted was because the chief witness who testified about a specific person dying (bodies couldn’t be identified because of the extreme heat of the fire) had been so thoroughly coached that she simply repeated her heart-rending story word for word over and over when cross-examined. The story is in Chapter 3 of Francis Wellman’s classic “Art of Cross-Examination”, in later editions:

    Here’s a link (I hope) to the story in Google Books.

  3. c u n d gulag says:

    GOP POV:
    Well, it serves them right!
    They should have been home where they belonged – raising the children, cooking, cleaning, and ironing their husband’s shirts, instead of getting paid for making them for strangers!

    Libertarian POV:
    Well, it serves them right!
    If they felt underpaid/unsafe, they should have looked for work somewhere else!

  4. Bruce V. says:

    Credit should be given to ABC News, who produced a great segment last week on a modern Triangle Shirt Waist story — the safety condition in a foreign textile factory producing clothes for for the oleaginous Timmy Hillfiger:

    http://gma.yahoo.com/workers-die-factories-used-tommy-hilfiger-003219691–abc-news.html

    It’s worth watching the video just for the scene where the ABC crew gets kicked out of Fashion Week for asking unpleasant questions.

    • Bill Murray says:

      It’s good this is getting at least a little play. The Kader Toy Factory Fire in Thailand in 1993, despite having more people die than the Triangle fire, there was almost no coverage at the time. I only know of it from Don MacGlashan’s song on it.

      • Bruce V. says:

        The ABC News story focused on a fire at a garment factory in Bangla Desh. The deaths of the workers there were directly attributable to the failure of factory managers to consider worker safety in their business decisions. Unfortunately, this fire was not the first of its kind in the garment factories of Bangla Desh (nor likely to be the last).

  5. Andrew says:

    Probably a good idea to keep in mind the plight of immigrant women workers who struggle with injustice and exploitation in present times:

    http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/injustice-on-our-plates

    • Eddie Dean says:

      We’ll meet again,
      Don’t know where,don’t know when.
      But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

  6. Andrew says:

    Oh yeah, here’s some obligatory libertarian comic relief for you:

    http://rexcurry.net/shirtwaist.html

    • Sherm says:

      Is that for real? As I read the car seat nonsense, I couldn’t help but think it was a joke

    • DrDick says:

      Oh dear sweet Cthulhu! That asshat actually calls for private fire companies rather than government ones. Like all libertarians, totally ignorant of history, since we had those in the 19th century, which is the reason we have public fire departments now. Many engaged in arson to drum up business, and there were near riots as competing companies contended for the right to put out the fire (while the building burned to the ground). We have tried private police, mail service, and most other current public functions (even government, if you count the chartered colonies) and they always failed miserably.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        The owners chiseled their employees on wages, work space, and escape routes, but they totally would have ponied up for fire protection.

        Ah, libertarians.

  7. Sherm says:

    I was very pleased to learn this winter that my 8th grade daughter had been taught about the shirtwaist factory fire in social studies and had been required to read portions of the jungle as well. The jungle, of course, was taught from the perspective of the need for regulation of the meat packing industry rather than from a labor perspective, but reassuring that such matters are being covered in social studies. Sinclair sure as hell wasn’t in my middle school or high school curriculum, and I suspect that my first exposure to the shirtwaist fire came when I read zinn on my own as an adult.

    • GeoX says:

      I know that that angle of The Jungle is what’s usually emphasized, and I suppose there’s a certain logic to it, since it’s an example of a book having a concrete influence on public policy, albeit an unintended one. It’s still pretty grotesque, though; the bits about public hygiene are a pretty minuscule portion of the whole, and it ain’t exactly hard to figure out what the overwhelming message of the book is.

  8. joe from Lowell says:

    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.

    If you don’t like the conditions where you work, you can always just leave.

  9. Anonymous Bob says:

    This post is the height of Liberal Fascism, how could you write this without mentioning Margaret Sanger! Also Barbra Streisand once went on TV with Non-Union clothes…

  10. Robert Farley says:

    Loomis seems to write a lot of posts about 146 people horribly burning to death after being locked in factories, but sure doesn’t write many about capitalists forced to accept 1% lower annual returns because of burdensome government regulations.

    Maybe he just doesn’t care.

  11. Barry Freed says:

    I remember reading a heart-rending eyewitness account of the fire which tells of a young man on the 10th floor basically holding women out the window and lowering them to their deaths until there was only himself and one other woman left and they jumped together to their deaths holding hands. I can’t seem to find it now or remember where I’d heard it. t

    • Barry Freed says:

      OK, Erik, consider this a formal request. Does that story sound familiar? I might have got a detail or two wrong (like the floor they were on) but the image of the young man helping the girls over the side to their deaths and then jumping while holding hands with the last one has haunted me for a very long time. I’ve been googling around to find it but to no avail. (OTOH, it might be one of those things that’s too good to check. Still I do remember reading it somewhere).

      • Erik Loomis says:

        It doesn’t sound familiar to me, but that does not at all mean that it isn’t true. I just don’t have quite the level of detailed knowledge on the event to know that.

        • Barry Freed says:

          Too bad but thanks for your reply (and for the post). It’s one of the most heart-rending things I’ve ever read and now it’s going to bother me until I track it down.

          • Malaclypse says:

            I think Making Light ran a bunch of stuff on Triangle one year ago today.

          • Barry Freed says:

            Found it, it’s as heart-breaking as I’d remembered and I’m trying to keep from shedding any tears while I post this (I’m doing some work in a public library). It’s from Cornell U’s excellent site ( http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/ )

            The account is here:

            http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/primary/testimonials/ootss_WilliamShepherd.html?sto_sec=fire

            As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.

            Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward-the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.

            Thud-dead, thud-dead-together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.

      • Sounds like a variation on what happened in the Flight 90 crash.

  12. KadeKo says:

    I have read any number of books on disasters, everything from the General Slocum to the Iriquois Theater, and everything in between. So when some blog introduces me to one I hadn’t heard of before, that takes some doing.

    That Edison movie is just icing on the cake. After A Corner in Wheat, anyone know if D. W. Griffith or the like had a go at a melodrama from the workers’ POV?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      A Corner is Wheat is pretty interesting. I’ve thought about doing a series of silent movies that can be embedded into posts and talking about them. A Corner in Wheat is definitely among the top I would talk about.

  13. Larkspur says:

    Last year the NY Times reported on how a researcher named Michael Hirsch managed to identify the last “anonymous” victims, so now everyone’s name is known. And there are photo portraits, too. The article is still up over here Unnamed Triangle Victims Identified. It also references a recent HBO documentary (Triangle: Remembering The Fire)that is worth watching.

  14. Mike Timonin says:

    When I taught this a couple of years back (and, yeah, Jo Ann Argersinger’s book is excellent), I made sure to bring up the similar fire in Binghamton, July, 1913 (because I’m teaching in Binghamton – nothing like local flavor to generate interest in freshmen). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1913_Binghamton_Factory_Fire

  15. [...] been 101 years and two days since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This summary of it at Lawyers Guns and Money is [...]

  16. [...] series has also featured such events as the Triangle Fire of 1911 and the Oakland General Strike of [...]

  17. [...] series has also covered the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in [...]

  18. [...] series also has covered the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of [...]

  19. [...] ends. February 24, 1912–Beating of the women and children at Lawrence March 25, 1911–Triangle Shirtwaist Fire April 4, 1968–Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis April [...]

  20. [...] this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively [...]

  21. [...] please read this too: If this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively [...]

  22. [...] vulnerable and impoverished labor to exploit. Eventually, the Irish too would demand better lives. Jews and Italians would be next, then corporations would discover the glories of capital mobility. They moved their factories to [...]

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