Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building (Brown Building)
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is located in New York
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
Location: 23-29 Washington Place, Manhattan, NY
Coordinates: 40°43′48″N 73°59′45″W / 40.73°N 73.99583°W / 40.73; -73.99583
Built/Founded: 1901
Architect: John Woosley
Architectural style(s): Other
Governing body: Private
Added to NRHP: July 17, 1991[1]
Designated NHL: July 17, 1991 [2]
NRHP Reference#: 91002050

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, causing the death of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11, 2001. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for safer and better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building, originally known as the Asch Building and currently as the Brown Building, survives and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark[1].


[edit] The company

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, occupied the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building in New York City at the intersection of Greene Street and Washington Place, just east of Washington Square. The company manufactured women's blouses, which at this period of time were called "shirtwaists" or simply "waists".

The company employed approximately 600 workers, mostly young immigrant women from Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. Some of the women were as young as twelve or thirteen and worked fourteen-hour shifts during a 60-hour to 72-hour workweek. According to Pauline Newman, a worker at the factory, the average wage was six to seven dollars a week,[3] at a time when the average yearly income was $791.[4] At most, Triangle Factory employees earned $338 a year.

By 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had already become well known outside the garment industry: the massive strike by women's shirtwaist makers in 1909, known as the Uprising of 20,000, began with a spontaneous walkout at the Triangle Company. During the strike, owners Blanck and Harris, two anti-union leaders, paid hoodlums to attack the protesting workers and hired prostitutes as replacement workers to show contempt for the strikers.[5]

While the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement covering most of those workers after a four-month strike, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to sign the agreement.

The conditions of the factory were typical of the time. Flammable textiles were stored throughout the factory, scraps of fabric littered the floors, patterns and designs on sheets of tissue paper hung above the tables, the men who worked as cutters sometimes smoked, illumination was provided by open gas lighting, and there were only a few buckets of water to extinguish fires.

[edit] The fire

A horse-drawn fire engine on their way to the factory.
The building's south side, with windows from which fifty women jumped marked X.
Tombstone of fire victim at the Hebrew Free Burial Association's Mount Richmond Cemetery.

On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire began on the eighth floor, possibly sparked by a lit match or a cigarette or because of faulty electrical wiring. A New York Times article also theorized that the fire may have been started by the engines running the sewing machines in the building. To this day, no one knows whether it was accidental or intentional. Most of the workers who were alerted on the tenth and eighth floors were able to evacuate. However, the warning about the fire did not reach the ninth floor in time.

The ninth(9th) floor had only two doors leading out. One stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames by the time the seamstresses realized the building was on fire. The other door had been locked.

The single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly anchored iron structure, soon twisted and collapsed under the weight of people trying to escape (the exterior fire escape may have already been broken). The elevator also stopped working, cutting off that means of escape, partly because the panicked workers tried to save themselves by jumping down the shaft onto the roof of the elevator.

Much to the horror of the large crowd of bystanders gathered on the street, sixty-two of the women who died did so after realizing there was no other way to avoid the flames except to break the windows and jump to the pavement nine floors below. [6]

Socialist Louis Waldman, later a New York state assemblyman, described the grim scene in his memoirs published in 1944:

"One Saturday afternoon in March of that year — March 25, to be precise — I was sitting at one of the reading tables in the old Astor Library... It was a raw, unpleasant day and the comfortable reading room seemed a delightful place to spend the remaining few hours until the library closed. I was deeply engrossed in my book when I became aware of fire engines racing past the building. By this time I was sufficiently Americanized to be fascinated by the sound of fire engines. Along with several others in the library, I ran out to see what was happening, and followed crowds of people to the scene of the fire.

"A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

"Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

"The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines."[7]

Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the shaft. Of the jumpers, a single survivor was found close to drowning in water collecting in the elevator shaft.[citation needed] The fallen bodies and falling victims made it difficult for the fire department to reach the building.

The remainder waited until smoke and fire overcame them. The fire department arrived quickly but was unable to stop the flames, as there were no ladders available that could reach beyond the sixth floor. The ultimate death toll was 148, including 141 who died at the scene and seven survivors who later died at hospitals.[8]

Twenty-three victims of the fire were buried by the Hebrew Free Burial Association in a special section at Mount Richmond Cemetery. In some instances, their tombstones make reference to the fire.[9]

[edit] Consequences

The building's east side, with 40 bodies on the sidewalk. Two of the victims were found alive an hour after the picture was taken.
Bodies of the victims being placed in coffins on the sidewalk.
People and horses draped in black walk in procession in memory of the victims

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building's roof when the fire began and survived. They were later put on trial, at which Max Steuer, counsel for the defendants, managed to destroy the credibility of one of the survivors, Kate Alterman, by asking her to repeat her testimony a number of times — which she did without altering key phrases that Steuer believed were perfected before trial. Steuer argued to the jury that Alterman and probably other witnesses had memorized their statements and might even have been told what to say by the prosecutors. The defense also stressed that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. The jury acquitted the owners. However, they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913, and plaintiffs won compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty. In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.[5]

Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist, said in a speech at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, to an audience largely made up of the members of the Women's Trade Union League, a group that had provided moral and financial support for the Uprising of 20,000:

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.

Others in the community, and in particular in the ILGWU,[10] drew a different lesson from events: working with local Tammany Hall officials, such as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers, such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, they pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The ILGWU leadership formed bonds with those reformers and politicians that would continue for another forty years, through the New Deal and beyond.

As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded soon after in New York City, October 11, 1911.

[edit] The building

The Asch building survived the fire and was refurbished. Real estate speculator and philanthropist Frederick Brown later bought the building and subsequently donated the structure to New York University in 1929, where it is now known as the Brown Building of Science. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991.[2][11][12]

The building also was listed as a New York City Landmark in 2003.

The factory is now a part of New York University and has been reconstructed into the chemistry building. Two plaques in the front of the building commemorate the women who lost their lives in the fire.

[edit] References in popular culture

  • The disaster and increased status of womens' role in union organizing was featured in Meredith Tax' novel "Rivington Street"
  • The disaster was the subject of a 1979 movie, The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal
  • The disaster has also inspired a musical, Rags.
  • The song "Feel Alive" by Boston rock band The Modern Elite was inspired by the fire.
  • The band Rasputina wrote a song about the fire called "My Little Shirtwaist Fire."
  • Lois Lowry wrote about the tragedy in her book The Silent Boy.
  • Katharine Weber used it as the basis for her novel Triangle.
  • Poet Robert Pinsky references the tragedy in his poem "Shirt."
  • Playwright Susan Lupo wrote her play From Ashes to Dust about the tragedy.
  • The fire was also a plot element in Sylvia Regan's 1940 play Morning Star.
  • Mary Jane Auch's novel Ashes of Roses was based upon the disaster.
  • New York rock band The Brandos wrote and recorded a song about the fire called "Triangle Fire" (on their album Over the Border, 2006).
  • Ralph Bakshi's American Pop references the tragedy.
  • In his novel Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham writes of a "Mannahatta" factory that comes to an end similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but calls it "Mannahatta" to comply with chronology.
  • David Von Drehle's book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America is about this incident.
  • Playwright Christopher Piehler wrote a play called The Triangle Factory Fire Project.
  • Kevin Baker references the shirtwaist fire in his novel Dreamland.
  • Margaret Peterson Haddix wrote about the Uprising of 20,000 and the fire in her novel Uprising.
  • The fire is a plot element in Elana Dykewomon's novel Beyond the Pale.
  • Robert Phillips wrote the poem "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire" from the perspective of survivor Rose Rosenfeld.[13][14]
  • Jeffrey Deaver references the shirtwaist fire in his novel The Bone Collector.
  • Sunfire Romance #21 "Rachel" by Vivian Schurfranz is a fictious book involving a Polish/Jewish immigrant girl in the disaster

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

[edit] Film

  • The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal (1979), Directed by Mel Stuart, Producers Mel Brez and Ethel Brez[15]
  • Those Who Know Don't Tell: The Ongoing Battle for Workers' Health (1990), produced by Abby Ginzberg, narrated by Studs Terkel[16]

[edit] References

  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ a b "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building (Brown Building)". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. 2007-09-19. 
  3. ^ Link to History Matters Interview"My own wages when I got to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a dollar and a half a week. And by the time I left during the shirtwaist workers strike in 1909 I had worked myself up to six dollars....The operators, their average wage, as I recall - because two of my sisters worked there - they averaged around six, seven dollars a week. If you were very fast - because they worked piece work - if you were very fast and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or anything, you could make around ten dollars a week. But most of them, as I remember - and I do remember them very well - they averaged about seven dollars a week. Now the collars are the skilled men in the trade. Twelve dollars was the maximum."
  4. ^ "Incomes". Time Magazine. 1925-08-31.,9171,720928,00.html. Retrieved on 2008-11-19. 
  5. ^ a b John M Hoenig, The Triangle Fire of 1911, History Magazine, April/May 2005.
  6. ^ Shepherd, William G. (1911-03-27), Eyewitness at the Triangle,!, retrieved on 2007-09-02 
  7. ^ Waldman, Labor Lawyer, E.P. Dutton & Co., pp. 32-33.
  8. ^ "New York Fire Kills 148: Girl Victims Leap to Death from Factory" (reprint). Chicago Sunday Tribune. 1911-03-26. p. 1.!. Retrieved on 2007-10-03. 
  9. ^ "HFBA Timeline". Retrieved on 2009-03-26. 
  10. ^ Jones, Gerard (2005). Men of Tomorrow. New York: Basic Books. pp. 15, 16. ISBN-10: 0465036570. 
  11. ^ ["Triangle Shirtwaist Factory", September 26, 1989, by Page Putnam Miller "National Register of Historic Places Registration"]. National Park Service. 1989-09-26. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory", September 26, 1989, by Page Putnam Miller. 
  12. ^ [Triangle Shirtwaist Factory--Accompanying 3 photos, exterior, from 1989. "National Register of Historic Places Registration"]. National Park Service. 1989-09-26. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory--Accompanying 3 photos, exterior, from 1989.. 
  13. ^ Phillips, Robert; John T. Irwin (2006). Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 88 pages. ISBN 978-0801883781. 
  14. ^ Keillor, Garrison (2008-04-18). "The Writer's Almanac". American Public Media. Retrieved on 2008-04-19. 
  15. ^ "Triangle Factory Fire Scandal DVD Movie". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 
  16. ^ "Those Who Know Don't Tell". Retrieved on 2008-05-10. 

[edit] External links

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