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Firefighters fight the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, March 25, 1911.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers in 1911.
Today is the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I'd like to be able to say that its lessons were taken to heart and no one works in such unsafe conditions any more, but it's far too easy to name similarly horrifying workplace events happening today, from last year's Bangladesh garment factory collapse to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

The Triangle fire stays with me because my grandmother and her mother and sisters were immigrant garment workers in New York at that time. It's just luck that prevented any of them from being among the immigrants who were employed in that factory that day. Join me below the orange tangle of thread to look at it a little more closely.

Examples of shirtwaist blouses from a 1906 needlework magazine
Shirtwaists: 1906
"Shirtwaists" at that time were women's blouses. They were manufactured of cotton fabric in numerous sweatshop-type factories. New York had plenty of immigrants, Italians and eastern European Jews, who had no choice but to work, and put their children to work, for whatever wages they could get. My grandma's Sicilian family was reasonably typical; her father was a stonemason, whose work was seasonal. Her mother sewed piecework at home while she had young children, and all the girls worked on it as well, as soon as they were old enough to sew. They sewed outside of school hours, though, because their mother insisted they go to school. That insistence on school made the sisters blessedly bad candidates for sweatshop work, which had a six-day work week with set hours.

There had already been efforts to unionize factories like Triangle, and improve the working conditions, but it was difficult for workers to compel the owners to comply with even such regulation as had been agreed to. The conditions in the factory that Saturday afternoon were ones we've heard about all too often. There were locked exit doors, intended to prevent employees from smuggling out garments or fabric. There was a flimsy fire escape ladder close to the building, where flames would quickly destroy it. There were long tables full of sewing machines running the width of the floor, blocking fast exit, with narrow aisles filled with chairs, and very flammable fabric and fabric dust everywhere. There was nominally a fire hose, but it proved not to work.

Triangle Shirtwaist mapThe factory was on the top three floors (8-10) of what was then called the Asch Building (now the Brown Building, part of NYU), located at the corner of Greene St. and Washington Place in New York's Greenwich Village, a block from Washington Square Park. (Click map to open bigger in new tab.) The building was said to be "fireproof", and it must have been because the building still stands. When the fire started on the 8th floor, apparently in a scrap bin, employees tried to put it out with buckets of water (and the waterless hose), but it grew too fast. An 8th-floor bookkeeper was able to telephone the 10th floor, where management was located. People on that floor climbed to the roof where they could cross to the next building, so all but two of them survived. But there was no audible fire alarm, and no phone in the 9th floor sewing room, where the largest number of casualties occurred. The 240 workers there learned of the fire only when they saw it. They overwhelmed the available exits, and the fire spread too fast to give everyone a chance to get across the room past all the obstacles. Many employees were driven to the windows.

The fire department responded, but their ladders reached only to the 6th floor, and their hoses didn't have enough pressure to deliver adequate water to the top of the building. They could and did put the fire out, but they could not reach the people to rescue them in time. Employees began to jump, preferring that death to being burned. Of the 146 victims, the youngest was 14. Most were young women.

The factory owners were able to persuade a jury that they didn't know about the locked exits. They skated, and when the same owner was found to have locked exits in his factory two years later, he was fined twenty dollars. The owners settled in a civil suit. They paid $75 per life lost. Their insurers paid them $400 per life lost.

The public outrage over the fire did have some worthwhile effects. Frances Perkins, later FDR's Secretary of Labor, had witnessed the fire. She headed a new New York City Committee on Public Safety, which identified and lobbied for specific legislative reforms to protect workers. At the state level, a Factory Investigating Commission drove the modernization of New York labor law, resulting in 60 new laws in the ensuing two years. New York is still a pretty progressive state for worker protection laws, but there's plenty of room for improvement, and not everyone can live in New York. We need to keep pushing for better laws everywhere, and keep paying attention. As in every other area, greed never rests and no advance is secure.

I recommend several websites for information and photos about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Additional material from the comments:

Also from JekyllnHyde, a blistering modern song:

Also from JayRaye, a mournful Yiddish poem of the time by Morris Rosenfeld, sung by aquabella

From one of my comments: When labor activist Rose Schneiderman addressed a memorial meeting shortly after the fire, she had this to say:

   I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

    This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

    We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

    Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

    I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (9th floor) NYC Greenwich Village (Asch) Brown Building reflected in cobblestones
Asch Building reflection. Photo by John Mathew Smith.

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Originally posted to Kitchen Table Kibitzing on Tue Mar 25, 2014 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Genealogy and Family History Community.

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