Just after the turn of last century, a terrible tragedy took place in New York’s Greenwich Village. A garment factory caught fire, and it was catastrophic. A mixture of mishap and avarice led to the deaths of 146 people, the great majority of whom were immigrant women and children. The youngest was 14 years old.
This was the Triangle Fire, which happened 100 years ago today on March 24, 1911. At that time, garment district workers — mostly women — were working to improve conditions and support unionization. While the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) had been formed only eleven years earlier by male workers, there were now many women involved, for the most part young Jewish and Italian immigrants.
Two years before the fire, there was a small strike at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and while it had no effect except to get its organizers fired, it was a galvanizing event for Local 25 of the ILGWU. Two months later, Clara Lemlich, a Russian Jewish woman who had arrived in the U.S. eight years earlier, led a three-month general strike in the garment district eventually involving thousands and thousands of workers. While it resulted in higher wages for many of those workers, Triangle’s owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris kept their shop determinedly non-union.
Conditions at Triangle, like those at other shops, were as demoralizing and exhausting as you can imagine from Dickens’s bleak images of industrial-age factories. The pace was brutal, with no water or bathroom breaks allowed. When mistakes were inevitably made, the workers had to pay for the wasted cloth, thread, and needles. At the end of the day, women were made to open their handbags to prove they hadn’t stolen anything. Blanck and Harris often made it a habit to lock all the other exit doors so nobody could slip out the back.
This was, of course, a large and terrible factor in the number of deaths when the fire started on March 24. While some were able to escape, the floors stuffed with cloth and paper quickly blazed out of control and many were not so lucky. A fire hose on the floor failed. The fire escape turned out to be useless. The workers on the 9th floor were never notified about the fire. When the fire department arrived, it was discovered that their ladders were too short to be of any use in rescuing the trapped workers, many of whom chose to jump to their deaths, tearing through the meager protection of police nets, rather than burn. Witnesses spoke of seeing women at the windows holding hands or hugging before they plunged. (This photo of a policeman staring upwards helplessly while surrounded by the bodies of jumpers is graphic and may be disturbing.)
The Triangle fire, taking place in the middle of the garment district’s contentious efforts to unionize, tragically illustrated some of the very reasons why workers demanded protections. It brought home the struggle to all of New York City; more than 200,000 people from every level of society turned out for the funeral procession that wound around lower Manhattan, honoring the unidentified dead. (Last month, those last six names were finally able to be announced.)
The Triangle fire led to changes in labor codes and fire standards all over the country and brought awareness of workers’ conditions to the public. One of the witnesses, Frances Perkins, would become the first female Cabinet member, and as Secretary of Labor, her experiences influenced Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was a seminal event in the history of the organized labor movement
I’ve been fascinated by what happened at Triangle ever since I lived in New York, half a block away from where the fire took place. The building is still there; I’ve walked past it a hundred times. And it so happens that Blanck and Harris were indicted for manslaughter on my birthday, April 11. (They were acquitted, unfortunately, and settled privately with a score of families whose relatives had died in the fire. Blanck was impressively sleazy; just a couple of years after the fire he was back chaining the doors of his new factory during working hours, and cited for yet more safety violations.)
The Triangle fire helped change the public’s perception of labor unions from pure socialism to something that was necessary to protect workers. The comfort I take away from this ghastly tale is that those 146 people, 123 of them women, didn’t die for nothing. Their deaths have great meaning, especially when only a month ago, thousands of workers protested at Wisconsin’s state capitol for the very protections that the Triangle fire helped bring about.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place during a time of struggle and protest for workers’ rights. 100 years later, that struggle continues on. Let’s remember those who perished, and honor the sacrifice that improved the lives of millions.
(All photos in this post are from from Cornell’s excellent website. My apologies for the links opening in the same window; there is a bug of some kind.)