The sweatshop was a regular part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Young women were crammed in basements sewing in fading light to produce pieces for little pay. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was no different. Owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, they employed women to make blouses, which were then known as “shirtwaists”. The women worked twelve hours a day, every day, and were mostly teenaged immigrants and did not speak English. For these long hours the girls got between $7 and $12 a week. In modern dollars, this is $166 to $255 a week or between $3.20 and $5.50 an hour.
The company took up the occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. On March 25, 1911, 600 workers were ending the work day and a fire flared up in one of the scrap bins under cutter’s station. The fire marshal theorized the fire started from ashes from a cigarette or match that landed in the bin as the bins contained a month’s worth of scrap cloth. A fire alarm was first sounded at 4:45pm by a passer by who saw smoke coming from a window. There was no audible way to warn the workers on the different floors. A bookkeeper did finally get through to the other floors by telephone. However, according to survivor, Yetta Lubitz, the first indication of the fire on the ninth floor was seeing the flames.
The workers tried to escape. There were four elevators that served the factory, but only one of them worked. To get to that one, the women had to line up in a narrow corridor and wait. The doors to the stairways were locked to prevent theft and opened inward into the factory. The doorman who had the keys to unlock the doors had already escaped. There were two rickety fire escapes, but it would have taken the women hours to go down that way. In their panic, the workers crowded on to the fire escapes and in the heat the iron twisted and came down. The elevator operators saved many lives by making three trips up to the ninth floor, only stopping when the heat buckled the rails. The women tried to climb down the elevator cables to escape, but died from the height. Other women jumped from windows to their death. Reporter William Gunn Shepard, would say that “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk”
The firefighters arrived on the scene, but their ladders were too short to reach the upper floors to rescue the women. Women seeing no other way out, continued to jump out the windows. A life net was unrolled to catch them, but it ripped and saved no one. Falling bodies hit fire hoses making it difficult to fight the fire. Finally, the firefighters were able to put out the fire, but carnage was terrible. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, thirty-six were dead in the elevator shaft and fifty-eight died from jumping to the sidewalks. Two more workers died of their injuries days later, bringing the death toll of the fire to 145.
As more information came out, it was found Blanck and Harris had a history of suspicious fires. The two factories which had been in the same building had both been torched. Both of these fires had been before workers arrived, and had netted the two hefty insurance payments. The two had refused to have sprinklers installed in case they needed to set another fire.
The public was outraged. The workers union held a march down 5th avenue to protest the conditions of the workers in the factory. 8,000 people attended the march. In mid-April, Blanck and Harris were charged with manslaughter, however, they were acquitted. They were found guilty of wrongful death in a civil suit brought two years later. This brought new life to the stagnant movement for worker’s rights and immigrant’s rights. Reform was enacted in the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law, which passed that October. Frances Perkins, who became labor secretary under Franklin D Roosevelt, was inspired. She said, “…something must be done. We’ve got to turn this into some kind of victory, some kind of constructive action.” Perkins and other leaders with direct experience of the Triangle fire, like New York Governor Al Smith, soon helped marshal new workplace safety standards into law in the State of New York, setting an example for the rest of the country.
Until the tragedy of the World Trade Center, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the most deadly workplace tragedy in New York City’s history
Sources available on request