Friday, March 25, 2011

Centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Why Should This History Ever Repeat Itself?

Guest Post by Mrs. Tarquin Biscuitbarrel

My grandmother first told me about the Triangle Fire when I was very little. "I trained as a typist, so I was spared working on the shop floor, hunching over a sewing machine. But I always remembered how many girls died that day, girls the same age as I was," Nana said. "And the young men, too, of course," she added, ever the egalitarian.

On March 26, 1911, a makeshift morgue at the end of Manhattan's Charities Pier was filled with the remains of more than a hundred young women and two dozen young men, victims of a catastrophic fire in a garment factory housed on the top three floors of what was then called a "high-rise": the ten-story Asch Building. Sprinkler systems, though already considered very effective in controlling fire, had not been installed in what was claimed to be a "fireproof" building. The bodies that had plunged from windows (some holding hands) were readily identified. The remains of the workers who had been trapped by flames and a locked door or elevator shafts were not so easily reclaimed. And more than a hundred thousand people lined up in "Misery Lane," as it was called on days of disaster, that day to peer into row after row of coffins. Heartbroken relatives searching for missing family members were there, of course, but so were gawkers and pickpockets.

The day before, March 25, 1911, the worst industrial fire in New York City history had gutted the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and cost the lives of 146 Triangle employees--virtually all recent immigrants from Europe who had left behind poverty in Jewish shtetls or from Italy, seeking a better life in what was then known in Yiddish as the Goldeneh Medinah ("the Golden Land"). Had the fire started on a weekday rather than a Saturday, the death toll would have been much higher, including those of the factory's six hundred workers who upon that Saturday had chosen to forgo a day's pay in order to observe the Sabbath, or for other personal reasons. The three floors of the Triangle work space had only one exit that had not been padlocked to prevent theft, though the garments and their components were carefully counted at the beginning and end of each work shift, and women's pocketbooks were searched before they could leave. Within minutes, the shop's refuse bins holding highly flammable scraps of lightweight cotton lawn material and the thin paper tissue used for pattern-making had ignited, and the conflagration had spread to the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. There were a few dozen pails of water scattered around the three floors, if one needs an illustration for "a drop in the bucket."

The New York Fire Department's extension ladders reached only to the sixth floor, and its most powerful fire hoses had little effect on quenching the fires consuming the three highest floors. Most of the workers who were able to reach the two rickety fire escapes were doomed. Only twenty women escaped before the metal ladders collapsed, sending burning bodies hurtling to the pavement below. Two heroic elevator operators ferried grossly overloaded carloads of terrified workers down to safety before the two freight elevators in operation that day stopped, leaving many workers trapped to die in the elevator shafts.

"The entire blaze, from spark to embers, lasted half an hour," noted David Von Drehle in his definitive book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Grove Press: 2003). Until another "nine-eleven" event gripped the world's attention ninety years later, the Triangle fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City history. "Death was an almost routine workplace hazard in those days," wrote Von Drehle. "By one estimate, one hundred or more Americans died on the job every day [emphasis added] in the booming industrial years around 1911. Mines collapsed on them, ships sank under them, pots of molten steel spilled over their heads, locomotives smashed into them... Just four months before the fire at the Triangle, an almost identical fire in a Newark garment factory trapped and killed twenty-five young women, and experts predicted that it was only a matter of time before a worse calamity struck in Manhattan. Yet workplace safety was scarcely regulated, and workers' compensation was considered newfangled or even socialistic." Sound familiar?

As the second paragraph of the March 26, 1911, article below indicates, The New York Times would have won even Glenn Beck's approval by demonstrating such tender concern for the condition of the building. "It shows now hardly any signs of the disaster that overtook it. The walls are as good as ever so are the floors, nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed..." See? Good as new! Except for the furniture and all the dead people, of course.

"141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside" New York Times, March 26, 1911, p. 1.

"Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned yesterday, and while the fire was going on 141 young men and women at least 125 of them mere girls were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.

"The building was fireproof. It shows now hardly any signs of the disaster that overtook it. The walls are as good as ever so are the floors, nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories. [...]"

Evidently the Times reporter didn't see this:

Von Drehle gives a total of 140 named victims, the correct number at the time his book was published. But thanks to the efforts of independent researcher Michael Hirsch, who spent several years poring over manuscripts, newspapers, and official records, the final six individuals have been identified. Their names, photos, and what data is known about them has been entrusted to the Kheel Center at Cornell University, which maintains a heartbreakingly essential historical and memorial site documenting the Triangle fire. Numbers vary as to how many employees Triangle maintained at the Asch Building, but I'll trust the Kheel Center's estimate of 500 women and 100 men, mostly between the ages of sixteen and thirty-two. One victim was just fourteen, another the mother of five children and the sister of yet another Triangle victim.

A massive strike in 1909 by women garment workers for better working conditions and wages, as well as pressure from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Women's Trade Union League, were resisted by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle and a number of other profitable garment factories. They were "rich men, and when they glanced into the faces of their workers they saw, with rare exceptions, anonymous cogs in a profit machine," observes Von Drehle. (Harris and Blanck also had collected handsomely in insurance payouts for at least two fires in their factories that had occurred, fortunately, during non-working hours.) Taking advantage of the "shirtwaist" craze--the long-sleeved, high-necked blouses worn with long skirts by the swan-like models of the wildly famous artist Charles Dana Gibson--Blanck and Harris also profited from the influx of penniless immigrants seeking jobs, the rise in the purchase of ready-to-wear clothing as the twentieth century began, and the fact that a shirtwaist constituted not only demure workplace wear but was quite a labor-intensive item to make at home. And when People v. Harris and Blanck went to trial after the 1911 fire, the defendants were charged with seven counts of second-degree manslaughter, for unlawfully locking the exits. The jury of twelve men from business and the trades voted on their fourth ballot to acquit the Triangle owners of liability.

Following this verdict, twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch building. On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, Harris and Blanck settled. They paid seventy-five dollars per life lost, and continued to maintain unsafe working conditions in their garment factories. One woman who was strongly affected by the Triangle fire was Frances Perkins, whose downtown tea time was interrupted by the screams of the crowd and the unforgettable thump of falling bodies. Perkins became a powerful advocate for workplace safety in her role as Secretary of Labor during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency.

Facilities that employ poor women continue to lock fire exit doors, right up to this day, especially in chicken- and catfish-processing plants located in Southern states. To state just one instance, in 1991, twenty-five women were killed and fifty more were injured when a fire broke out in a chicken-processing plant run by Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, N.C. The doors had been locked from the outside, said management, in order to keep its minimum-wage employees from stealing the raw meat of dubious freshness that they were weighing, cutting, deep- frying, and bagging for fast-food restaurants. How many more Hamlets and Triangles will blacken our nation's history?

Given the concentrated efforts in Wisconsin to strip the rights of public-sector employees from collective bargaining, these efforts foreshadow a terrifying return to the so-called "Gilded Age," when the great bulk of America's wealth was in the hands of very few. Though a strong plurality of state voters support amending the Wisconsin state constitution to protect collective bargaining in three states--Maine, New Jersey, and Ohio--are proposing massive tax cuts for the wealthy and tax hikes for the middle class. I wince for Politicalgates readers from those states. As I do for our country, which appears to be moving economically in many ways that would bring a gleam of recognition to the eye of a Gilded Age plutocrat: at the expense of everyone who isn't already rich.


Thank you Mrs. TBB for an excellent post.

Further information regarding the fire can be read here -- be sure to pay the site a visit. Attention -- some of the photos are very graphic and may also not be safe for viewing at work.

You can also buy a copy of David von Drehle's passionate book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America at Amazon. The book examines the sociopolitical context in which the fire occurred and the industrial reforms that followed. It also gives a moment by moment account of the fire.


A Link to the list of victims names is here. You can read details about the victims lives if you click on the names on the list. Thank you Seraph!

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