The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

In the early 20th century, immigrants from Europe flooded Ellis Island in droves in search of “streets paved with gold” which they believed to be found in the United States. The majority of these immigrants settled in New York City to live in tenement housing and find work in the “30,000 factory floors and sweatshops that were located in Lower Manhattan. Each year, 612,000 workers, mostly immigrants were turning out one-tenth of the industrial output of the United States.

A quarter of a million men, women and children labored without any regulations. “The majority of garment workers were made up of Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrant women. They ranged in age from 15 to 23 and many spoke little English. ” Their days were long. On average, workers put in “eleven hours, but most often they were sixteen to twenty hours, six days a week for which they were paid about $6 per week. ” The women were subjected to intolerable, brutal working conditions where if you were sick, you came to work sick for fear of being fired.

While on the job, it was common practice to be locked into your work space unable to go anywhere at-will. The nightmarish conditions were likened to working in a slave factory. “The doors were locked to keep out union organizers, to keep the women focused on their jobs, and to prevent the workers from stealing material. “The hissing of the machines and the yelling of the foremen made it unbearable. Paychecks were docked or the workers were fired for humming or talking on the job. The bathrooms were located outside and the workers were made to ask to be dismissed to use them.

The shirtwaist makers were paid by the piece produced and speed was everything. The quality, however, was not important. “In some cases, they were required to use their own needles, thread, irons and occasionally their own sewing machines which they carried on their backs. The “shirtwaist”, which is another name for a woman’s blouse, had a high neck, puffed long sleeves and was tightly fitted at the waist. It was “one of the country’s first fashion statements that crossed class lines. The booming ready-made clothing industry made the stylish shirtwaist affordable even for working women.

Worn with an ankle-length skirt, the shirtwaist was appropriate for any occasion – from work to play – and was more comfortable and practical than fashion that preceeded it, like corsets and hoops. The garment workers had the beginnings of representation to address implorable conditions, as basic as it was, when on “June 3, 1900 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in New York City by representatives from seven local East Coast unions. The union represented both male and female workers who produced women’s clothing.

Though affiliated with the more conservative American Federation of Labor for most of its history, the ILGWU was unusual in representing both semi-skilled and unskilled (automated) workers.  Although the ILGWU was formed, it did little to impact the working conditions at the factories. So, on “November 22, 1909 the ILGWU called a meeting in the Cooper Union Hall to consult its membership and map out a strategy.  The hall was packed full and there were many speakers who spoke endlessly. They promised their support but feared retaliation by the employers in the form of firings and physical harm. Clara Lemlich, a seamstress and union member who was 19 and already badly beaten for her part in union involvement, came forward and took the stage. She called for an immediate strike of all the garment workers and her motion was resoundingly endorsed. This was to become known as “the largest strike of women in the history of the United States. ” Within days, “more than 20,000 shirtwaist makers, from 500 factories, walked out and joined the picket line at Union Square. This was called the “Uprising of the 20,000”. More than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands within the first 48 hours.

However, the fiercely anti-union owners of the Triangle factory met with owners of the 20 largest factories to form a manufacturing association. ” “A month into the strike, most of the small and mid-sized factories settled with the strikers. The garment workers went back to work. The factories making up the manufacturing association realized that the public opinion was not on their side and agreed to negotiate. The garment workers rejected their proposal because it prevented the workers from having a closed shop. Due to dwindling resources, this first union strike fell short.

By “February 1910, the strike was finally settled and resulted in a “protocol of peace” between the women’s clothing industry and labor. ” “The few remaining factories rehired the strikers, agreed to higher wages and shorter hours and recognized the union in name only, resisting a closed shop.  The Triangle workers went back to work without a union agreement. There were still no regulations of the working conditions. Management never addressed their demands, including unlocked doors in the factory and fire escapes that were functional. This will prove to be an extremely costly error within the following 13 months period of time.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located in the Asch Building, occupying the top three floors of the ten-floor building in the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District. The company employed “over 500 men and women with the majority of them Jewish and Italian women ranging in age from 13-23. Their work was primarily sewing shirtwaist blouses. The 8th floor was where the cutting room was situated. The 9th floor was where the sewers worked, lined machine to machine in many long rows, hunched over sewing machines that were operated by foot pedals. The finished shirtwaists hung on lines above the worker’s heads and bundles of material, trimmings, and scraps of fabric were piled high in the cramped aisle between the machines. ” The 10th floor housed the company offices. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at around 4:45pm, with 15 minutes left in the work day, a fire grew quickly out of control on the 8th floor cutters area. It is believed to have been caused by a cigarette or match which was discarded either on the floor covered with sewing machine oil or in one of the cloth scrap containers, or possibly from a spark put off from the overheating of an electric cutters machine. Fed by thousands of pounds of flammable fabric”6 fire engulfed the area and spread to the floors above in record speed. Most of the workers on the 8th floor were able to make their way to safety by using the stairs or elevator. The workers on the 10th floor “received a phone call about the fire and were able to climb to the roof of the building and made their way to the adjoining New York University building and were rescued. ” The unfortunate workers on the 9th floor, however, didn’t stand a chance.

Their fates were sealed because “the only safety measure available for them were 27 buckets of water, a fire escape that would collapse when people tried to use it, and 2 exit doors which were locked or only opened inward and were effectively held shut by the onrush of workers escaping the fire. ” About 200 women were trapped on the 9th floor with no means of escape. “Twenty women made it out on the fire escape before it crumpled to the street, killing a number of women who were on it. Some attempted to slide down the elevator cables only to lose their grip and fall to their deaths. 2 The desperate women didn’t know what else to do, so they began breaking out the windows and climbing out on the narrow ledge from which they jumped from the 9th floor to the street below. Some were on fire and burning as they fell. “For the fire department, the horror story that unfolded was compounded by the fact that although their equipment was the most sophisticated of its day, the ladders only reached up to the 6th floor. ” Firemen watched helplessly as workers died before their very eyes. The water pressure in the hoses failed. And the life nets broke when the desperate women jumped in groups of three and four. In less than 30 minutes, the fire had spent itself. In its wake it left 146 dead. ” “Of the 146 who died, 141 died at the scene and 5 died at the hospital. Six of these victims were never identified. Most died of burns, asphyxiation, blunt impact injuries or a combination of the three. ” It is often thought that most or all of the dead were women but, in reality, “almost thirty of the victims were men. ”The Triangle fire became known as “the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U. S. history.  Three months after the fire, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were “indicted for manslaughter and acquitted of all charges. ” It was believed that they broke no laws. “Three years after the fire, a court ordered the owners to pay $75. 00 to each of the twenty-three families who had sued for the loss of family members. ” “From the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire came the greatest political transformation in American history to bring about social welfare legislation. ” “The horrors of the bodies and the number of dead was the key to change.  The Triangle fire brought everyone together emotionally and spiritually to want change. “The resulting reform became an epic event. It took four grueling years of factory investigations by the Factory Investigating Commission to investigate fire safety as well as other conditions affecting the health and welfare of factory workers. ” “Among the results of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are that the New York State Assembly enacted legislation that required installation of automatic sprinkler systems in buildings over seven stories high that had more than 20 people employed above the 7th floor.

Legislation also provided for fire drills and the installation of fire alarm systems in factory buildings over two stories high that employed 25 persons or more above the ground floor. Additional laws mandated that factory waste should not be permitted on factory floors but instead should be deposited in fireproof receptacles. Because of bodies found in the open elevator shafts of the Asch Building, legislation was enacted that required all elevator shafts to be enclosed. ”

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