Fire in the Factory

This Month in U.S. History

By: Hannah Brevoort

Close to closing time on March 25, 1911, a devastating and fast-moving fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Factory, a sweatshop located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of New York City’s Asch Building. To this day no one is certain how the fire started, but given that the factory made shirtwaists – short shirts worn by women at the time – it had plenty of fuel in the form of fabric scrap piles and long wooden tables. The 500 workers in the factory, most of them female immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, fled for the exits, but for many it was too late. By the time the fire was extinguished half an hour later, 146 workers were dead. In this blog post, we’ll explore the working conditions that allowed this deadly fire to happen, as well as the imprint the fire left on labor history.

Today, the word sweatshop connotes many negative things: crowded, loud, unsafe, dirty. While many of those also rang true in 1911, sweatshop labor was common in New York City and across the United States. Many industries used mechanization and assembly line technology to speed up the production of goods, and an influx of immigrant workers gave company owners plenty of labor at a low cost. This resulted in noisy, packed, dimly lit factories with very little ventilation and very long work days required to churn out products.

The Triangle Waist Factory did not have sprinklers to help fight fires. Instead, several buckets of water lined up along one wall were the only means of putting one out. Because each worker created dozens of shirtwaists a day, fabric scraps piled up fast, and on March 25 they had not been thrown away in days. This, as mentioned above, helped to accelerate the fire. Another problem was that since 1908 the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, ordered their foremen to lock one of the exit doors on the ninth floor, allegedly to cut down on employee theft by making workers enter and exit the same way. During the fire this decision proved deadly, as the one unlocked exit became too crowded for safe evacuation.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire loomed large in the memory of labor activists and New Yorkers alike in the years following the tragedy, partially because of the huge number of lives lost, but also because of the traumatic way many deaths happened. Witnesses and survivors of the fire later recalled watching women jump to their deaths rather than be burned alive. Some of these women were even escorted and dropped out the window by other workers. The ninth floor fire escape, which had gone uninspected for years, gave way underneath the weight of two dozen workers, all of whom died from the fall. When the fire finally flamed out and worker’s bodies were recovered, thousands came to see them laid out in caskets at a makeshift morgue. The fact that most victims were young women (some as young as 14) new to America, whose deaths would have been prevented in better working conditions, guaranteed that their story lived on as a cautionary tale of workplace danger.

Want to learn more? Explore primary sources about the fire, including survivor interviews, newspaper articles, songs and more:

Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were later charged with, but acquitted of, manslaughter as a result of the fire. Read the transcripts from their criminal trial here:

Question for students:

After reading survivor accounts of working conditions in 1911, what are some ways workplace safety has changed? Has anything stayed the same?

Posted March 1, 2017

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