March 25th marks a tragic day in American history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The disastrous event, which happened on this day back in 1911, made many aware of the deplorable and dangerous working conditions that large numbers of the population faced on a daily basis.
The factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was housed on the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village near Washington Square Park. It made “shirtwaist” style blouses, which were all the rage for ladies at the time and was staffed primarily by immigrant girls and women who ranged in age from 14 to 23.
It was a chilly spring morning in 1911 when the fast spreading fire broke out on the 8th floor inside the factory. Garment factory fires were not uncommon at the time and it was the norm to have multiple water buckets near every station and doorway to quickly extinguish flames. The buckets that were typically placed around the factory floor were sadly empty that day.
In addition to no water, and perhaps more devastating, exit doors were locked and prevented the employees escape. Sadly, this was a common practice at the time as owners thought it prevented theft and unauthorized breaks.
Within minutes the entire eighth floor of the ten-story building was engulfed in flames. With exit doors locked, three of four elevators out of commission, and a narrow collapsing fire escape, workers had no choice but to run to upper floors to try to escape the smoke and heat. They broke out windows along the way screaming for help, their cries alerting people on the street below who watched in horror. A rescue ladder arrived but was unable to reach the required height, stopping at the sixth floor. The New York City Fire Department was outmatched by the blaze.
The young women were trapped. Workers began to leap to their deaths to escape the flames. Some jumped into open elevator shafts. Nearly two dozen women and girls crowded on to the rinkydink fire escape and plummeted to the ground below. The fire raged on for a full thirty minutes before it was extinguished. In the end, 146 of the 500 workers were dead.
The company’s owners, who survived the disaster by making their way to the roof, would eventually be indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges. Although they were acquitted for those crimes the pair would eventually be found liable in a civil suit. As a result of that judgement they were ordered to pay $75 for each person who perished in the fire. Even with that judgement, it seems the owners would actually profit from these deaths in the end. You see, their insurance company paid them $60,000 more than their reported losses, which comes in around $400 per casualty. That left a net profit of $325 per victim. A total of $47,450 to line their pockets. The literal definition of blood money.
In 1913, co-owner Max Blanck was arrested once again for locking employees inside his factory during their shifts. He was fined the minimum amount, 20 bucks. The old adage, a leopard doesn’t change their spots, comes to mind.
Workplace deaths were very common in that time with estimates saying more than 100 American workers died on the job every single day. These startling numbers, coupled with the publicity of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to much activism and eventually reform. Frances Perkins, who was among the crowd that watched the factory burn, spearheaded much of the movement. For her, the incident would inspire decades of workers’ rights advocacy. Her pursuits were so tireless, she would eventually be appointed Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As for the Asch Building, it survived the fire and was quickly refurbished. By 1916 the 8th floor was home to a library and classrooms for New York University. In 1929, the building was officially donated to NYU by wealthy philanthropist Frederick Brown. To this day, the now renamed Brown Building is utilized by New York University. A plaque on the corner of the building commemorates the lives of those who died on that fateful day.
For 90 years The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire had the unfortunate distinction of being New York City’s deadliest workplace disaster. That would all change on the balmy, late summer morning of September 11, 2001.
Liebhold, Peter. What you may not know about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. September 5, 2018. https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/triangle
Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in America, Knopf: 1992
Von Drehl, David. No, history was not unfair to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory owners, Atlantic Monthly Press. December 20, 2018.
Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, Atlantic Monthly Press: 2003
Wertheimer, Barbara M. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, Pantheon Books: 1997