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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 3/25/1911 -- 100+ Women Burned to Death Awakening the US Conscience to Labor Rights

Re-post from 3-18-2011.

[historical info taken from American Experience presentation and poetry from Jonathan Fink]

On April 5, 2011, 400,000 New Yorkers, 1 out of 10, showed up in the rain to mourn the deaths of 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant women, who had died in the deadliest workplace accident in New York history.

The victims of this fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, incidentally, had been the vanguard group of picketers and protesters who had incredibly managed to trigger the biggest work stoppage in history -- 10,000 garment workers -- at the end of 1909.

Tragically, the women’s own workplace, unlike hundreds of others by the end of that year, continued to ban union representation. That the gross building negligence of this particular management would ensure the excruciating deaths of these most valiant of the pro-union workers was the ultimate in cruel fate.

The tragedy was so profound and so well-publicized it did underline the necessity finally for the government to intervene to protect the rights of workers against management abuse in terms of working conditions, building safety, work hours, work pay, child labor, health care, etc. It provoked the conscience of America in recognizing the justice of a contractual relationship, enforced by government, between managements and their workers.

In the early 1900s, over 100,000 immigrant garment workers filled the streets of the lower east side of New York every day. So many were young teenage immigrant girls, Jewish, Italian, Polish, etc.. They had come to America for the dream and knew that it required hard work. They often were the only support of their economically desperate families.

It was the Gilded Age in NY, in America. The “haves” in New York certainly had it all. These young immigrant workers of Manhattan got to gander wistfully at the luxurious Greek Revival homes in the heart of Greenwich Village, at the limestone mansions on Fifth Avenue, at the elegant, elite women in their fancy hats and bustles frequenting the shops along “ladies mile”, at the lucky students who congregated in Washington Square Park.

The young girls dreamed of bettering their worlds. They dreamed of education. Of concerts and lectures and opportunities. A future. The American “pursuit of happiness.” Some workers were as young as 10 years old. They would gaze up at the sky from their tenement homes and pray for a life more renewing than their present work lots. 14 hour-shifts, six days a week, with little pay and even less respect and satisfaction.

They had will. They had stamina. They had hope. They had courage. They were willing to work hard to feed and shelter their families, family members in New York City and often back in eastern Europe. They were in this new land of supposed freedom and opportunity but clearly at the mercy of the ever exploiting but at the same time celebrated and romanticized captains of industry.

A father leads his daughter to the door.
She’s wrapped her thimble, scissors,
and a loaf of bread in newspaper, then slid
two needles carefully into her coat’s lapel.

[snip]

... And then, at once,
a whirring sound like insects fills the air.
The room is thick with garments, bolts of cloth,
and everywhere she looks no eyes meet hers.

Half a block from Washington Square Park was the Ashe Building (now the Brown Building, a national landmark). It housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors. 500 workers were employed by this factory. As conditions went, it could have been worse, its workers knew. There were big windows. High ceilings. It was not as cramped, dark or coal-smoke-filled as some workplaces.

Conditions were cruel, nonetheless. 14 hour days, six days a week. $2 a day, if you weren’t partially docked for broken needles or a machine that broke down. Volume and price was all that mattered to the management. The foot pedal pump sewing machines, which produced 34 stitches a minute, were replaced by the more ferocious electric, 3000 stitches a minute ones. Progress created more opportunity for mistakes and stress among the workers, along with more hunger for profit among the shirtwaist manufacturers.

Also, the invention of rubber-soled shoes allowed foremen to stealthily swoop down in their monitoring of the women, who might as well have been literal cogs of their machines, so enmeshed were they in their rhythms.

There was little empathy to the human needs -- rights -- of the employees. If an employee was taken ill, needed the bathroom, a drink of water, punctured her finger with a needle she soldiered on. She had no choice. The youngest worker at the Triangle Factory was a tender 14.

Incidentally, the exit door to Washington Place was kept locked on the workers at the Triangle to prevent pilfering of goods. The employees’ handbags and carryalls were inspected at the front Green Street exit stairwell as they filed out each day. The locked back exit door turned out to be a tragic factor in the high death count from the famous conflagration. Fire safety was not a serious consideration. 12 red pails of water within the building’s three floors was the extent of its fire protection program.

The man who runs the shop is like a sentry
at her side. He pulls against the stitches
with a needle, trying every seam. There’s coldness
in the room, a draft, and still he sweats,
two worms descending from his temples to his jaw.
The sourness that rises from his clothes
is like a fog. The only prize is labor—
cloth he brings and lays across the table.
Work engenders work.

[snip]

Summer turns to fall,
to winter. Overcoats are hung on hooks, the hats
on pegs. The sounds of rain, the sounds of wind,
are barely heard. The building stifles speech,
absorbs the women’s words the way two hands,
when cupped above a candle flame, will press
against its heat. The only mark of time is carried
in the body. Hair turns gray so quickly that a girl,
at first, will pluck a single strand, and then,
by end of year, her locks will lose all darkness.
Color fades from skin and shadows form
like crescents underneath the eyes.
The body’s surest loss is form. Within a week,
the back will tighten. Muscles of the neck
will ache. The shoulders and the hands,
the upper arms, will knot and cramp. The work
of time is like a specter in the room, a silent form,
a flickering of candle flame and shadow.

The over-worked plight of these mostly young laborers was ignored not only by their immediate overseers but society in general. The industrialists were champions. The role models of individualism. Their economic power had erected skyscrapers, parks, museums. The workers, unnamed cogs of industrialization, were looked upon as the lucky benefactors of corporate largesse. The idea of a protest of conditions was generally regarded as “biting the hand that fed one.” In other words, “no one was watching” when basic human decency was violated by management.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Factory, were nicknamed the “shirtwaist kings.” They had begun the company as two very young and aggressive immigrant tailors who gambled all they had on their shirtwaist business. After 20 years they had come to clear over $1 million in profits each year, but still feared economic failure from the hundreds of blouse factories offering formidable competition and the fashion shift to dresses away from the shirtwaist blouses. Increased production they obsessed on as their economic salvation.

Though immigrants themselves, they had little empathy for the young women. After all, they had pulled themselves up without help. They had come to own 10 room uptown brownstones, with butlers, maids, governesses. They had fulfilled their American dream. Mentoring the less advantaged not a priority.

In fact, they became both terrified and enraged by the rumblings of agitation in the City for unions and fairer conditions. The nerve of those uppity young women. They saw their workers as ingrates -- biters of the hands that were feeding them.

The young, mostly women of the Triangle Factory initiated the first labor strike and walked out on October 9, 1909 despite the immediate dark consequences of intimidation and threats of starvation and homelessness of themselves and their families.

Harris and Blanck went to any amoral lengths to break the feisty pro-union reformers. They hired ex-prizefighters, thugs, prostitutes, pimps to physically attack the young women. They bribed police to rough them up as well as arrest them. Magistrates readily threw the protesters, even those clearly physically injured, into jail or fined them for breaking the peace. The women endured broken ribs and cracked skulls but stood their ground. Other shirtwaist factory workers looked on, inspired by their courage and commitment.

In November of 1909, a mass meeting was held at Cooper Union of all the shirtwaist garment workers. The union leaders including Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor explored at this meeting the benefits of protest but at the same time advised incrementalism. After all, the risks of a general strike ensured loss of work and possible starvation and homelessness for entire families. Then a young 22 year old woman named Clara Lemlich who herself had endured six broken ribs during the earlier protests stood up and simply and compellingly called for a general strike. The meeting room went crazy and the decision for a general strike was unanimous.

10,000 strikers went out. The largest work stoppage in NYC history.

The protests would go on for six hard weeks. Within the first 48 hours there were 70 factories that set up union only shops in response.

But a good number of larger factories refused to bend. The owners of the Triangle Factory formed the Manufacturers Association to stand united against the workers. They could not abide the idea of a union. No surrender. The beatings continued mercilessly. The press was indifferent or hostile to the vulnerable immigrant protesters.

Then something dramatic happened. The daughter of powerful financier J. Pierpont Morgan, Ann, became involved. She sympathized with the women’s plight and was a supporter of women’s suffrage. She would soon be joined by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, another member of the Social Register. They were appalled by the violence being perpetrated on the brave young women. Their “Mint Brigade” induced the press to change its tune and become sympathetic. To begin to romanticize the women’s struggle. The police also were far more reluctant to crack ribs and skulls knowing more powerful society women were part of the protests.

More and more negotiating began to happen. The work day was dramatically reduced to 8 hours. 1000s of shops agreed to become union only ones.

The society women such as Ann Morgan, however, eventually became disenchanted with the driven reformers such as those of the Triangle Factory. They were repelled by the reformers’ stubbornness to demand a union shop. The society women felt the women deserved support and protection, especially in terms of the physical abuse they were subjected to, but should have been grateful for the concessions that fell short of establishing ongoing union shops. They did not support such an extreme socialistic shift in working conditions. They withdrew their powerful and media-enhancing support. The immigrant women continued on, recognizing the need for ongoing union protection.

The Triangle Factory was unyielding, however, on the issue of unions. The workers there had to settle for less than their goal, despite the fact that they were on the vanguard of the unionization fight.

Then on Saturday, March 25, 1911 the horrifying happened. At 4:45pm as these workers prepared to end their work week, yearning for relaxation, for a dance at Coney Island, for their free time and a full Sunday off, maybe a lit cigarette started a fire on the 8th floor. As the 8th floor emptied, the 10th floor executives were alerted immediately by phone. Blanck and Harris quickly made their way up to the roof and onto the next building. Somewhere within a pocket among the initial escapees was the key to the locked door on the 9th floor. The open Green Street exit on the 9th floor was quickly blocked with flames and smoke. The Washington Place back stairwall exit was permanently locked.

There was no phone connection to the 200 or so sewing machine operators on the ninth floor. Those workers would not be alerted to the fire until it was tragically raging upon them.

What startles first—the sound, or heat or light
A girl looks up from work, her features calm.
Her hands are flat against the bench, her triceps
and her shoulders tense. She doesn’t rise at first,
but stares, as do the other girls, at wings of fire—
the fabric burning on the line. What beast
has entered here, has climbed the stairs in silence?
What will burn—the walls and ceiling, beams
and floor? The makers of the building claim
it “fireproof,” an invitation, words becoming form.
Perhaps the women disbelieve at first—a shudder
in the chest, a feeling of embarrassment, as if a girl
has said, unmeaning to, the name of whom she loves.
The clarity of fear is like a net. Nobody moves.
And then, as if it were a parlor trick, the cord
that holds the cloth burns through and fire is given
motion, sweeping through the air, two vines of flame,
the swatches shedding light and smoke and ashes.

[snip]

The body is a bull. It seizes at the scent of smoke.
The nostrils flair. Its pulse becomes a drum
repeating through the arms, the chest, the tunnels
of the ears. The truth of fear is that emotion dims.
All thought dissolves in muscle, memory in bone.
The leisure of desire—the future one assumes—
evaporates like breath on glass.

[snip]

I heard the shout of, “Fire! Fire!” and saw the stairs
in flames, the women running towards the elevator doors.
The elevator didn’t pause in its descent, but passed our floor.
The bodies in the elevator car were packed so closely
that it could not fit another person, even if it stopped.
Three girls, their clothes on fire, ran shrieking past.
I grabbed two pails of water that we kept for fire
and tried to douse the girls, but they were heading
towards the windows, farther back into the room.

[snip]

A window sash, eighth floor, thrown open.
Yellow flame. A body silhouetted in the window.
Light becomes a seething curtain. Stepping
to the ledge, a woman hesitates and slips
her handbag on her wrist, then jumps, her body
whirling through a canopy of woven wire
and glass. The other girls begin to follow.
Women can be seen from far away, their bodies
dark against the backdrop of the flames.
Their voices are consumed by fire. They fall
together, sisters on the ledge, their arms entwined.
The fire becomes a part of them, a ghost
in clothes and hair. It never seems to waver,
even in their falling. Shouting from the street,
the passersby call out for help, for time.
The women do not look away as other women fall.
Some force is over them, some force behind.
They plunge so quickly from the ledge they seem
inhuman, thrown, but then there are the arms
and hands amid the flames, the open mouths, the eyes.

[snip]

I felt like I was standing in the belly of a dragon.
Everywhere I looked was smoke and fire.
The building’s beams, the walls and ceiling,
seemed to writhe. And then I saw the group
of girls. They huddled close together.
When I yelled to them they did not move.
I ordered them to come to me, but nothing
seemed to stir them. Then I used my club.
I struck them into life. They moved together
like a herd. I felt so large against them,
forcing them together down the stairs.

[snip]

On a window ledge eight inches wide,
six girls appear in single file and creep
their way along the building, ten floors high,
until they reach a swaying wire that spans
the street. The leader waits for all the other girls.
They grab the wire in unison and when
it snaps like rotten whipcord in their hands
they fall together, tumbling through the air.
A girl is standing in a window frame.
She throws her pocketbook, her hat and furs,
before she jumps. A young girl holds
for several minutes to a windowsill,
the flames increasing at her fingertips.
She drops into a life net held by firemen.
When two other women fall into the net it tears
beneath them. Five girls smash a pane of glass
while, from an eighth-floor windowsill, a girl leaps
for a fireman’s ladder that extends six floors.
She does not reach it in her jump and lands
halfway within a net, her body breaking at the waist.

[snip]

We heard a strange commotion rising from the street
and when we looked we saw the signs of fire—the smoke
and flames beginning in the building, women calling out
for help, yet no one was around, no firemen, no police.
I grabbed my friend Elias and we hurried to the roof.
I knew these girls. I’d seen them everyday. I knew them
from their strike a year ago, but even more than that
I knew them from routine. I knew their groups. I knew
the way they shuffled as they walked. I knew the way
that some of them would stare into the slit of sky between
the buildings overhead, while other girls would never
take their focus off the ground.

[snip]

She ran to me, her hair on fire,
and fainted in my arms. I used my hand to smother
out the sparks. I carried her back out and there
was Kanter standing at the bottom of the ladder.
When we climbed with her I wrapped my fingers
in her hair, my other arm around her chest so that
I would not let her go, my hands fixed firmly
on the ladder’s rungs. The hands that took us
at the top were strong as vices, lifting us on air.

The fire department came but only had ladders that barely reached the 6th let alone 9th floor. 30 feet too short they were. The nets the firemen held broke from the weight of the jumpers, though with bloodied hands the firemen valiantly tried to raise them for rescue. The fire escape early on collapsed under the weight of the escapees plunging them to their deaths. Again, that locked door, the best exit, to Washington Place, imprisoned them.

The firemen contained the fire quickly but too late to save 145 lives. 1 surviving jumper would die within the next 5 days at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The estimated death toll:

53 died from jumping.
19 died from jumping into the elevator shaft
over 20 died from falling from the breaking fire escape
over 50 burned to death or died from asphyxiation on the factory floor
All but 23 who died were women. 1/2 were teenagers. The youngest was 14.

Family dentists had to accompany surviving family members to identify many victims the bodies being so charred.

The first physician to arrive is rushing to the side
of every girl who jumps. He gives to her a hypodermic
shot to lessen pain. He treats the girls he finds still
breathing, though they all expire before more help arrives.
The fire is out in half-an-hour. Water fills the street.
The crowds have swarmed the scene and they are either
stunned to silence, or they’re calling out the names
of friends and family members who cannot be found.
Policemen move among the bodies of the girls
and fasten to the wrists a tag the officers must
number with a pencil. In a row across the street,
one hundred coffins made of pine lie side by side.
The bodies placed in them are taken to the morgue
at Bellevue Hospital or to a temporary morgue along the pier.
Three officers are carrying two woven baskets
filled with handbags, money, jewelry and combs.
Four hours from the fire’s start, a young man’s found
immersed in water to his neck within the corner
of the basement. When he speaks he seems
delirious, repeating to the men his sister’s name.

[snip]

Policemen stand among the rows of coffins.
Holding lanterns out, the men illuminate the dead
as crowds file past. The women and the men
all move in single file. They lean in close or glance
ahead as if they’re watching for a ship. The coffins
line the inside of the pier and when a body is identified
the lid is closed, the coffin taken from the row.
The husbands and the wives, the daughters
and the sons, respond by sometimes falling
to their knees, or turning back, the crowd dividing.
What familiar item draws the family members
from the line—a ring, a scarf, a mended stocking?
In the moment when the men and women recognize
the body lying at their feet a stillness enters them:
a mother’s posture straightens, palms together
at her waist, her fingers intertwined; a father tugs
the bottom of his jacket, starts to speak, then only nods.
The officers must hold the lanterns through the night.
What preparation steadies men for this?
What training stills the light within their hands?

[snip]

A man across
the street walked briskly back and forth. He’d start to run,
then stop and walk the other way. He called a woman’s name.
He grabbed at strangers, turned them towards him.
Something in him made them still, some wildness
as he searched each face before he let them pass.

The City was enraged by the horrifying deaths of the brave champions for labor, these immigrant women who sacrificed so much already, and then eventually lost their lives from the shabby workplace conditions they ironically had fought so valiantly to improve. Their tragic story spread nationally and then internationally.

The two owners were tried eventually but acquitted of manslaughter. They took away generous insurance compensation and retired.

There was public pressure for labor reform. The NY State Legislature empowered a Factory Safety Commission. Over two years it spent doing serious inspections and giving testimony of the reality of workers’ environments. Within 2 years there were 30 new labor laws setting up standards for minimum wages, maximum work hours, child labor, workplace safety conditions, etc. The American Society of Safety Engineers was established. New York led the country in public policy legislation on behalf of workers.

100 years ago this month the fire took place. The workers and their sacrifice was belatedly heeded by US society and its government.

What has happened in the last century to send us back to corporate oppression and labor abuse, betraying government, the dismantling of worker rights and protections, plenty of union-bashing rhetoric and union-busting legislation from politicians, some willing to promise unions anything for election support, and then let them twist in the wind when it comes to follow through on promises?

How awesomely frustrating and disgusting it all is. How much it parallels the plight of those shirtwaist workers who had such a hard fight to attain their rights.

We as a nation have returned to a “haves and have nots” Gilded Age of amorality and elitism. The corporatists, the government, the media have abandoned the working class. Once again, there is massive denial of workers' rights. Public protections of the American workers are steadily being eliminated by our supposed governmental representatives. Once again the media romanticizes the rich and famous and turns its back on the majority of economically struggling Americans. It demonizes unions and their members, encouraging immature resentment for them from workers in the private sector.

Human decency and justice seem of little value to an administration and Congress that continues to sell out to the wealthy elite. Awareness, empathy and integrity mean little to our political and industrial/corporate elites.

The centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire deserves attention and heeding. Do we really have to go back to the pre-unionization struggles? Would today’s ruling class elite even heed a human tragedy like the Triangle Factory Fire?

Whether they would or wouldn't, we must! We must honor and appreciate what was sacrificed to gain our protections and hang onto them or get them back fighting like hell, also.

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Comments

chezmadame's picture
Submitted by chezmadame on

We should never forget what happened that day or the brave women who fought so hard for the early union movement in this country.

I went to college at NYU whose Main Building is located on the site of the old Triangle Shirtwaist factory. It was haunting to stand on the corner where the plaque was, knowing what had happened on those sidewalks.

My husband spent his career in the FDNY at Ladder 8 in lower Manhattan, a company commissioned before the Civil War. They were one of the units that responded that day.

My mother was the child of Italian immigrants, raised on the Lower East Side. Her childhood friend was named for an aunt who had died a teenager in the fire.

I am, in my sixth decade, a union member for the first time in my life. Our small faculty voted to join a union just about a month ago. We are in the certification process now, fighting for our right to be recognized. I am so proud.

Thanks again, Libby.