The 1911 fire at the Shirt Waist factory in downtown New York brought to light the often deplorable and unsafe working conditions of America’s early factories.
Early American industrial life was full of poor safety standards, low wages and low tolerance for unions. What happened at the Triangle factory at the end of the work day in 1911 was an avoidable tragedy that haunted the people of New York for many years.
Work Life at the Triangle Factory
Typical of industrial relations at the time, the Triangle workers were subjected to unfair wages in unsafe conditions working unbelievably long hours. They had little time off and little respect from their employers. The subcontracted management cared little about the lack of human dignity in a factory that produced piece garments for sale throughout the city. Many of the workers were female immigrants and considered the very lowest type of worker. It was backbreaking work for measly pay: about $300 a year.
Many people in New York were sick of the sweat shop conditions. At the time of the fire people had begun to organize and union activity was thriving. Triangle was a non union shop and unemployment was the consequence of union involvement at the shirt waist factory. Losing a minimum wage job for an immigrant in 1911 was often a death sentence. Change would come a little late for Triangle.
The Day of the Fire at the Shirt Waist Factory
It was March 25, 1911 and approximately 500 people were at coming close to the end of the work day at Triangle. The factory was located on the corner of Greene and Washington in down town New York. Many of the workers were young females some as young as 14. They worked in rooms full of wooden machinery, piles of fabric and blocked exits. The fire broke out on the top floors where hundreds were busy cleaning up their work spaces. The cause of the fire is still not certain but was probably sparks on a pile of discarded rags.
Piles of fabric, machine oil, blocked exits, lack of fire safety practices and overcrowded work rooms meant seconds after the fire broke out so did panic. News reports the following day claimed it was only minutes before the fire engines arrived. Yet in those minutes the smoke took over. Over crowding took over and people began to jump out of the windows. The jumping was partly due to being pushed by the massive crowds inside, partly due to an insufficient number of elevators. So many workers were petrified of being burned to death.
Several dozen people did escape by way of the elevators before they ceased working. After that, people hurled themselves into the empty elevator shaft to escape the smoke and flames. One man shimmied down the cable to safety, landing on the dead bodies of his less successful co-workers.
Deaths and Responsibility at New York’s Shirt Waist Disaster
Bodies falling from the windows above kept one man glued to the spot until helped arrived. Emergency responders brought nets to catch the falling bodies but gravity wasn’t taken into account. People bounced out of the net to land full force on the sidewalk below. Most of the deaths were due to burns and suffocation. By the end of the afternoon, 146 people were killed.
Many deaths were blamed on fire engines that couldn’t get close enough to put out the flames due to the falling bodies. Those that were close enough didn’t have ladders long enough to reach the top floors of the factory. The owners of the factory claimed no knowledge of the safety violations that plagued the building. This avoidable tragedy showed just how dangerous life could be in early industrial America.
The Triangle Factory Today
The building that once housed the Triangle factory still stands in Greenwich Village today. The 146 women that lost their lives did not die in vain. Because of the tragedy, safety standards improved, real wages went up, hours went down and union activity increased. Survivors of the dead workers sued the company. Two years after the disaster they received a total of $75.00 each in compensation.
Sweat shops remain with us in modern times, even in fair New York City. But things have come a long way since that tragic day in 1911 when young women, newcomers to the country, jumped from a burning building to escape unavoidable flames. Out of tragedy comes progress and out of the past comes a glimpse of the future.