On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the heart of New York City, a lethal fire broke out on the factory floor, located at the top of the ten-story Asch Building near Washington Square East. Trapping many of the textile workers inside, the fire claimed the lives of one in four employees: more than one hundred women and two dozen men, many of them young, recent immigrants and non-English speakers, perished in the blaze or while jumping from windows to escape. The dangerous working conditions responsible for the fire and its casualties were typical for urban factories, often known as sweatshops, of this period. The largely preventable tragedy and its aftermath helped to galvanize a series of reforms in the working conditions of laborers that continued through the twentieth century.
Prior to this devastating fire, New York City workers, including Triangle Shirtwaist employees, had begun to organize for better working conditions. On November 22, 1909, the Great Hall at Cooper Union was filled with thousands of local workers, including labor movement leaders Clara LemlichExternaland Samuel Gompers. It was Lemlich, a Jewish immigrant, who called for a general strike. The New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909—also known as the Uprising of the 20,000—had begun. The Women’s Trade Union League provided guidance to the strikers, helping them to determine their list of demands, which included shorter hours, better treatment by bosses, the end of night work, and a fair wage. When the strike finally ended, Triangle Shirtwaist, like many others, took back the strikers at higher wages and shorter hours. And yet, the reforms were not enough. One year, one month, and seventeen days later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory erupted in flames.
Less than three weeks after the fire, on April 11, 1911, factory co-owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were indicted on charges of manslaughter—but when the case went to trial that December, they were found not guilty. Despite the verdict, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would never fully recover. Harris and Blanck moved their operations several blocks away, but within a few years both the company and the business partnership came to an end. Yet the story was larger than the fate of a single enterprise, and had far greater staying power.
Labor and relief organizations sprung into action. Mourners took to the streets. News of the fire and subsequent trial were reported nationwide. Multiple newspapers reported that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory doors were locked or swung inward, and that many of the exits were blocked or in disrepair. Importantly, as many papers including the The Yakima Herald noted (March 29, 1911, p. 6), the “greater number of the employees were unable to speak English yet there were no Yiddish or Italian directions.”
Set against the backdrop of lax labor standards paired with rising immigration since the end of the nineteenth century, the Triangle Shirtwaist incident speaks to the adversities faced by many thousands of immigrants, especially women, as they attempted to make their way in a new country. In the wake of the fire, immigrant communities memorialized the tragedy, while labor organizations such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (founded 1900) gained newfound momentum, organizing workers to engage in collective bargaining to better their daily lot.
But the story is not all tragedy. Witnessing this event is credited with inspiring the labor-reforming career of Frances Perkins, who later became the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet in 1933. As Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Perkins created sweeping reforms including the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Labor Standards Bureau. During her tenure:
“…child labor was abolished, minimum wage and maximum-hour laws were enacted, and, through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers were guaranteed the right to organize and bargain collectively. She also chaired the Committee on Economic Security, established in 1934, which recommended the nationalization of unemployment and old-age insurance. Thanks to her committed pursuit of this ideal, the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935.”
Notable New YorkersExternal. Columbia University Libraries
The ordeal of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, together with the labor movement that surrounded and grew from it, inspired countless workers to organize for better treatment. Together with business owners and government regulators, they forged the strong set of worker protections and workplace standards that are a crucial part of labor law in the United States today.