Wall Street History
The Triangle Waist Co. Fire
90 years ago, a significant tragedy occurred in New York City,
the Triangle Waist Co. fire, but in terms of the American labor
movement and workers'' safety, it did lead to some positive
Back in 1900 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union
(ILGWU) was formed; though sweatshops continued to flourish
in the big cities, particularly New York. Then in September
1909, 200 women tried to join the ILGWU and were fired. This
led to a strike and workers at another large factory joined in, but
the owners hired thugs to break it up and the laborers (mostly
women) were beaten. The police then arrested the victims. Soon
the abuses brought about a workers revolt of sorts and in
November of that year, 20,000 were on strike, the largest labor
action by women ever staged in the United States. Eventually,
they won better wages and hours and the right to form a union
(this was about more than just the ILGWU).
But actual working conditions still largely depended on the
individual shop owners, and on the corner of Green Street and
Washington Place in New York City was a 10-story building
which contained the Triangle Waist Co., a sweatshop employing
750 workers on the top 3 stories, 650 of whom were women.
Triangle manufactured shirtwaists, tailored blouses, on a
piecework basis. On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at about 4:40
PM fire broke out just 5 minutes before the workers would have
been sent home. The work areas were full of flammable
materials, as you can imagine, but the building was fireproof.
There was only one internal fire escape (nothing external),
however, and the exit door was blocked by the owners, Isaac
Harris and Max Blanck, in order to prevent theft. City inspectors
had warned Harris and Blanck about the situation, but the
inspectors never followed up with enforcement.
The fire itself lasted but 30 minutes. The building was, indeed,
fireproof. Afterwards, the structure hardly showed any signs that
a fire had taken place. Yet 146, at least 125 of them girls
between the ages of 16 and 23, died.
I was reading an account from the 3/26/11 edition of the New
York Times and it''s so gruesome that I don''t even want to relate
all of what was reported from the scene. Most of the victims
suffocated, but 46 jumped to their death, even though the crowd
below yelled, "Don''t jump!" A man was seen gently handing
girls onto a windowsill, "as if he were helping them onto a
streetcar instead of into eternity."
Among the many tragic factors leading to this catastrophe was
the fact that the tallest fire ladders only reached to the 6th floor,
and then you had the case of Harris and Blanck, fleeing with
their children and governess over the roofs. The employees,
though, didn''t know about this escape route, and they were used
to riding the two freight elevators, one of which was not in
service when the fire broke out.
Needless to say, the fire at least galvanized the City of New York
into action. Back then, some 300,000 worked in lofts higher than
the fire ladders could reach, for example, while inspectors were
often paid off by the proprietors. Fire Chief Crocker complained
after the disaster of "the way in which the Manufacturers''
Association had (previously) called a meeting on Wall Street to
take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods
of protection for employees in cases of fire."
A commission led to an investigation of some 1,836 factories in
20 industries, which resulted in the passage of 56 bills,
including a 54-hour work week for women and minors, safety
codes, workers'' compensation and a ban on night factory work
for women. One of the sponsors of the legislation was a state
senator by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In the case of Harris and Blanck, however, they hired a
crackerjack attorney, Max Steuer, who helped them beat a
manslaughter charge. Then when the two collected the insurance
money, they stalled for years in court, before finally paying out
the claimants to the tune of about $75 a life. But Harris and
Blanck weren''t finished. In their new factory inspectors found
the same old violations, including 6-foot piles of rubbish and
blocked fire doors.
Just a few other labor tidbits:
1867: The 8-hour work day was first enacted as a main goal of
labor unions in the states of Illinois, New York and Missouri, but
it was seldom enforced.
1917: Despite reforms, there were still some 11,338 fatal
manufacturing accidents in America and, incredibly, non-fatal
injuries that year numbered 1,363,000.
1926: Henry Ford was the first to adopt the 40-hour work week
as a way of boosting a then ailing auto industry. America''s
industrial titans were shocked, but the proposal was warmly
received by the AFL because it was seen as a way to check
overproduction, while limiting unemployment.
"The American Century," Harold Evans
"The New York Times Century of Business," Floyd Norris and
"The Growth of the American Republic," Morison, Commager,
"America: A Narrative History," David Shi and George Brown
"The Encyclopedia of American Facts," Gorton Carruth