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1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Women in Flames

By Edited Jul 31, 2016 4 6

Caged Heat

Bondage can be literal or figurative.  

In the Deep South of the United States literal human bondage, the enslaving of Africans as laborers, lasted for over three centuries.  Vestiges remain today as racism against Americans of African descent.  

For Native Americans, attempts at subjugating them in slavery failed.  Instead, their bondage came by geography – they were forcibly removed or otherwise driven out of their native lands beginning in the mid 16th Century.  They were killed, marched, or otherwise enticed to settle into scrubland areas of no land value called “reservations”.  This bondage carried an invisible fence – on the reservation lands the Indians living there were sovereign within the confines of another country.  

No group in history, however, has suffered more than women.  Their bondage could be physical: restrained in marriages of convenience, treated as chattel (to be beaten or sexually abused at will), and tied to household demands of childbearing.  Exploitation of women could also be figurative: tied to the grind of a menial job to scrape together a few pennies to survive.  Complaints about working conditions or long hours were met with termination of their needed employment.
Women and girls of the early 20th Century, finding the need to contribute to the family’s coffers or die of starvation, worked long hours for pitiful wages in horrendous conditions in garment factories, textile mills, and at other grinding labor.  Their masters, the employer, took care to squeeze as much out of these flesh-and-blood females as possible every day. 
Shirwaist Ad (early 20th C)
The owners of the Triangle Waist Company, operating in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City’s Asch Building found a solution to keeping their female immigrant workers productive.  Access to the work spaces on the 9th and 10th floors of the structure was controlled by a single walk-up stairwell leading to the street.  Fire exit doors leading to antiquated (and poorly maintained) rusting fire escapes meant a chance for the women working 70 feet above the ground to step out and get a breath of air.

The management of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory saw these unscheduled breaks as inefficient, cutting into production time in their sweatshop.  They also believed their female laborers pilfered cloth and other items from the company, sneaking them out the fire exits, dropping them over the escape’s railing for later retrieval.    

The cure for this wool-gathering on the fire escapes was a simple one: the fire exits on the 9th and 10th floors of the building were locked from inside with chains and padlocks in some cases or simple but solid casement locks in others.

The women working for the garment makers were finally, truly imprisoned – they could not leave during their shift nor could they step out onto the fire escapes during their shift. There remained only the one narrow stairway leading out of their prison, carefully monitored by supervisors.  

The results of the draconian lockdown in the manufactory space were painfully brought to the fore on March 25, 1911, when a fire broke out on a lower floor.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory women, slaves to their work and jailed in their place of employment, in their panic to escape met the locked fire exit doors head on.

Over the Rainbow
For the immigrant to the United States in the late 19th Century, metaphorical bondage in near-slave labor in sweatshops was the lot of many.  The unwashed masses teeming to American shores for a better life met with disillusion in many cases.  Illiteracy and a lack of marketable job skills, strangers in a strange land were forced to live in close quarters in the worst slum conditions imaginable. Hunger, rats, bedbugs, body lice, child prostitution, drug use, alcoholism, disease, ethnic gang crime, and despair all were constant companions.

The jobs new arrivals could find were similarly horrific. Working conditions defined the word “appalling”: twelve-to-fourteen hour days, children as young as eight set to work on dangerous machinery (leaving many missing fingers, eyes, and other body parts), and absurdly unrealistic piece-work requirements ensured the labor force’s misery.

However, any job in was better than no job, and most went along with their exploitation merely to have a few pennies for food and a few dollars for rent in a tenement. Housing was overcrowded and overpriced (as a percentage of what these working poor earned). A single room might cost $13.00 per month (at a time when a garment piece-worker might earn 30¢ per day, other members of his family – his wife and children – less). Employees took piece-work home to finish it through the nights, enlisting the aid of whatever family members could stay awake – children as young as three pulled basting stitches and trimmed loose threads. 
The 19th Century social reformer and immigrant newspaperman, Jacob Riis, was appalled at the living conditions of the working poor.  Having spent much time living in the notorious Five Points area of New York City (the world’s worst slum at the time) he knew firsthand the lot of the exploited, underpaid immigrant. He documented the living conditions in a series of exposés for his paper, using photography for the first time as a narrative tool (his work set the tone for social journalism). He later wrote a book, How the Other Half Lives, which detailed the cramped squalor of living in the tenements of Five Points and about employer abuses of its workers.   
While Riis’ crusading tended toward improvements in living conditions, there was a crying need as well for reforms in the average work environment as well.
Prince Valium
Women in the American immigrant-labor workforce of the post-Industrial Revolution era were by lot the most abused, degraded, and undervalued of any employees.  To add to their miseries, in addition to the patriarchal prisons of child-bearing “traditions” and maintaining homes their very sexuality was controlled to increase productivity.
The invention of the first practical sewing machine by Bostonian Elias Howe (patent granted in 1846) revolutionized one of the most labor-intensive activities of human kind: clothes making.  Previously, all garments were sewn by hand and but for some patterning almost any garment made could be considered an “exclusive”. 
The garment industry grew from the cottage businesses of seamstresses.  Mass production was made possible by steam-powered looms for weaving cloth, and Howe’s sewing machine (with later mainstreaming, mass-production by Isaac Singer, who stole Howe’s design without paying royalties) led to the creation of the most visible of sweat shops, the clothier’s manufactory.
These machines, installed in great numbers by the dawn of the 20th Century, carried an unintended and interesting “side-effect” for women working upward of 12 hours or more per day on the treadle-powered Singer-brand sewing machines, though.  The constant, rhythmic rocking motion of the worker’s foot on the treadle plate induced orgasms in many grown women and younger girls alike.  This accidental, albeit pleasurable, discovery led to a noticeable productivity decline by floor supervisors.  The disruptions in the production pace by some women (willfully or otherwise) using the machine as a masturbatory tool were intolerable.  Work was not supposed to be enjoyable. 
The solution was to identify the “users” from the others and see to it that such women were given mild sedatives as a condition of their continued employment.  Extracts from valerian root (for which the sedative Valium later derived its trade name when it came to market in the early 1960s) were used to deaden sensations.  Similarly, laudanum (a popular opiate concoction that also contained alcohol) was used.  Other women simply self-medicated with booze to struggle through their grueling work days, orgasms or no orgasms.
Furthermore, just as in Hollywood, women in factories might be subjected to unwanted sexual contacts from their superiors.  In an era where women had no rights except as chattel, the “casting couch” (trading sexual favors for guarantees of employment) existed and was taken in stride.
But beyond the exploitation of their bodies, female workers in New York City’s garment district were subjected to draconian work environments.  Inadequate ventilation, restrictions on mobility (leaving a work station required permission as one might grant a child in school), excessive heat and cold, and physical abuse (beatings were not uncommon) made for hellish work weeks.  As women were considered expendable (unskilled or low skilled) they rarely complained about their treatment, knowing full well to do so would mean getting fired.
No Striking
Labor unions developed to help combat abusive employers, to shorten work weeks so that people had a chance for proper diet and rest, and other concessions to make working more tolerable.  They were not welcomed with open arms by what became known in the parlance of Labor as “management”.  Workers angling for collective bargaining rights were replaced, beaten, intimidated, and even murdered to keep up the profit margins of the owners of any given concern.
Asch/Brown Building
The off-the-rack garment industry was spurred by the invention of a woman’s article of clothing called the shirtwaist in the late 19th Century.  This apparel item was a simple blouse cut along sleek lines that could be worn with or without a jacket.  It was a hit with women, and it also created a market for women’s jacketed suits that before had no outlet.  The shirtwaists were inexpensive – they could be purchased for as little as $1.00 and their versatility insured they remained trendy well into the earlier parts of the 20th Century. 
But, as Jacob Riis noted in his crusade against immigrant poverty, the garments, while selling for $1.00, might net the piece-worker 1 or 2 cents for her efforts (a greater gap was seen in men’s clothing of the time – capes that were worked by immigrant laborers totaling roughly 25 cents or so in payments to the worker sold for $19 at finer men’s clothiers in New York).  The real profits went into the hands of the owners.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory concern, operating in a dingy sweat shop environment on the upper floors of a poorly maintained building, was typical of garment factories of the day.  While the owners reaped huge profits, and put little back into the business except to keep the machinery of commerce rolling, the women who did the sewing and finishing work on the product suffered.
Max Blanck & Isaac Harris (c. 1910, owners)
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were coined “The Shirtwaist Kings” in the early 20th Century.  They were Russian émigrés, and they met by happenstance in the late 1890s when Blanck – an entrepreneur – married a woman whose cousin was Harris’ wife. 
They opened a small shop in 1900 on Woodster Street they called The Triangle Waist Company.   Business boomed, and in 1902 they were forced to move to larger quarters, starting out on the ninth floor of the 10-story Asch Building (corner of Washington Place and Greene Street), later expanding into the eight floor in 1906, and buying up the tenth floor space for administrative offices in 1908.
The two steered their shop into becoming the largest makers of women’s shirtwaists in New York City.  However, as with many business owners of the era, profits maintenance was foremost in their minds.  And that meant insuring productivity never dropped or was interrupted.
Green Street exit of Asch Bldg
The factory works in the Asch Building became a prison for the women and girls who sewed there.  Ingress and egress to the work spaces on the top floors of the 10-story building (at least for the Triangle “girls”) was via a narrow staircase that opened onto a side street. 
Although there were windows in the workspaces, the heat was oppressive because of steam irons and clothing presses in use.  Slight relief from the stifling atmosphere was had by stepping out onto the deck of a fire escape.
To keep the workers from wool-gathering (as management called it) on the fire escape landings, Blanck and Harris – in defiance of city fire ordinances – purposely locked the interior doors leading to the escapes. 
They furthermore restricted the workers to coming and going via one narrow stairway leading to Green Street.  Even then, their work day may not have ended promptly – because The Shirtwaist Kings believed every woman in their employ was pilfering cloth or even completed shirtwaists daily they were subject to searches of their bodies, handbags, and any parcels they might leave with on a whim.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory "girls"
An incident at the factory in 1909 sparked a worker response.  Blanck and Harris fought union organization in their sweatshop at every opportunity, and in that year they fired 150 of their employees on suspicion of being union sympathizers. 
Factory interior shots
With help from the Women’s Trade Union League, 400 workers at The Triangle Factory went on strike over conditions and wages (much work was subcontracted out through jobbers who kept part of the proceeds, undermining the pay-rolled employees’ abilities to keep employment at higher piece rates).  A general strike followed citywide, ultimately involving 15,000 workers in the garment trades.
The Shirtwaist Kings, however, did not escape the watchful eye of labor unions and agitators after the 1909 strikes.  A strike by cloak makers in 1910 led to yet another city-wide walk-out of garment workers, including the women of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (though not originally inclined to join the strike effort, they were coaxed into it). 
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was affected by this strike.  Blanck and Harris gave lip service to improvements, though, by instituting a “pension plan” for its workers.  The plan was managed by cronies of the owners, it never paid out anything to anyone, and it was merely another way for Blanck and Harris to enrich themselves at the expense of their employees.  
When the strike ended, it was business as usual in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, including the continued presence of chains and locks on fire exits on the upper floors of the Asch Building.
Hot Iron?
The work day at the factory by 1911 had been set at 9 hours per day on weekdays, with 7 hours’ work time scheduled for Saturdays.   The workers earned from $7.00 to $12.00 per week in wages.  By this time in The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s history, most of the sewing machines for the gross work on cloth were run by steam power.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, just near closing time, a fire broke out in the upper floors of the Asch Building.  The shirtwaist shift was fully staffed with about 500 employees at that time of day, though many were in the process of cleaning up their workstations in preparation for departure.
Fire fighting (Mar 25, 1911, approx 4:40 PM EST)
Within minutes of its notice the fire raged out of control, and an alarm was raised at 4:45 PM by a pedestrian on the street who saw smoke.  The internal atmosphere, filled with cloth dust and other fine particulates from manufacturing, was literally on fire.  Panic ensued.  The workers, mostly Eastern European and Italian young women, crowded toward the one “approved” exit leading to Green Street.  Others herded toward the fire escape exits, only to be thwarted by the locked and chained doors (even had they made it to the escapes, there was little chance of survival – the fire escapes suffered from disrepair and metal fatigue and in the few instances where some managed to gain access, the escapes gave way, plunging several to their deaths in the street below).
Fire (as seen from street level)
For many of these women nothing could be more horrific than the certainty of a crushing death pressed against a locked door followed by being burned alive.  In perhaps one of history’s more poignant and heart wrenching scenes, several dozen women took to the windows of the building.  For them, leaping to their death was a far better fate than what was in store on the inside. All told 62 people leapt or fell (20 from the collapsing fire escape); a bystander mentioned the air overhead pin-wheeling with petticoats blown about at the women plunged from the blaze.  
Others threw themselves down an elevator shaft, crashing on top of the elevator car below (that some women had managed to use to escape – elevator operators heroically made three trips in the car rescuing people before it became inoperable).  
Although New York City had a well-developed fire response system by this time in its history, the building was a tinder box, and the fire was almost uncontrollable by the time the first teams of firefighters arrived.  Hose pressure was adequate to soak the fire from ground level; however, as one of the earliest skyscrapers on the New York landscape, the Asch Building’s upper floors were unreachable with the ladders available to emergency workers.  Many stood by helplessly watching as women tried to work their way along the ledges or as some jumped, taking their chances on a quick death below – the nets the fire department used to catch falling victims were simply not strong enough to withstand the forces of a falling body from that height.
Identifying dead on the sidewalk
The carnage was incredible, not just in the building, but on the sidewalks.  Bodies piled up, and were quickly sorted by police and others into makeshift viewing stations.  Word spread of the conflagration quickly, and people with known relatives working for the Shirtwaist Factory hustled to the scene to try to find their loved ones.
9th & 10th floor (interiors, aftermath)
In less than 20 minutes, starting at about 4:40 PM EST 146 workers were dead, either burned alive, crushed to death, or in falls from the building.
Makeshift morgue -- dead identifying
Afterward, an inspection by the City’s Fire Marshal concluded the fire had started in a bin of scrap materials under a cutter’s table in the northeastern corner of the building on the 8th floor.  This bin held two months’ worth of accumulated scrap material.  Although smoking was banned in the building, workers sneaked cigarettes, and the Fire Marshal concluded the fire did not result from faulty or careless use of presses or irons but probably from a smoldering cigarette butt tossed into the bin to avoid reprimand by a floor supervisor. 
Because both Blanck and Harris were in the building at the time the fire started (and each had their children with them in the building) arson was ruled out as a motive.   
Blood Money
Blanck and Harris collected insurance money from the fire (damages, indemnity against business losses, etc.).  However, they had publicly made claims that the deaths of the workers were not their faults as their factory environment was not only approved by the City (meeting minimum required fire safety conditions) but that it was also “fire proof”!
post-fire exterior shots
This last statement is what led to the pair’s indictment for Manslaughter in April 1911.  The locked fire exit doors were common knowledge, and one casement lock had been secured from the burned wreckage still clearly in its locked position.
9th floor door (still in locked position)
Other possible exits, at least to lower floors, were discovered blocked with scrap bins. Furthermore, though required by law to have at least two clear, unobstructed exit stairwells to the streets, The Shirtwaist Kings fudged this by claiming their badly maintained fire escape was an exit stairway (which it was not).
Both Max Blanck and Isaac Harris survived the blaze unscathed by escaping to the roof from which they were rescued.  Their indictments for 1st- and 2nd-degree manslaughter (seven counts) led to a $25,000 bail demand, which the pair paid easily.  The indictment, while handed down in mid April 1911, did not lead to a public trial until early December of that year.
Their defense counsel did his job only too well.  Max Stuer, their high-priced attorney, claimed that the two owners were not responsible as they were unaware that the fire exit doors had been locked when the fire broke out (even though testimony proved this had been done on their orders in the past).
newspaper clarion, Mar 27, 1911
The Shirtwaist Kings were acquitted of the criminal charges (the jury deliberated for less than two hours), but a wrongful death civil suit (brought by 23 plaintiffs) in 1913 led to a judgment against the pair.  They were required to compensate the victims and surviving families. The judgment amounted to $75 per casualty [their insurance company paid the owners about $60,000 more than the true damages – Blanck and Harris grossed roughly $400 per victim, profiting from each by over $300].
Blanck and Harris were castigated at every opportunity, though they managed to rebuild their company operating first out of a small office space, then into a larger factory on West 23rd Street in 1913 (the business shut its doors for good in 1918, having never regained its pre-fire profitability).
Apparently having not learned a lesson, in 1913 Max Blanck was cited for a safety violation – he was arrested for having a locked door preventing exits in the factory during working hours when the building was occupied.  He was fined $20 for this violation.
Hue & Cry
Public sympathy in this case flew toward the exploited workers.  Memorials were held, speeches were made, and monuments were erected.
some of the dead and injured (New York Herald)
A group charged with public safety was formed to investigate specific work-related problems and to lobby for legislative changes for the betterment of all workers in the City.  The Factory Investigating Commission was created by a legislative act of New York State to watchdog safety and working conditions for factory workers.  New York City’s fire chief later issued a statement identifying over 200 other sites in the City with environmental issues so similar to those of The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the blaze that expectations for a similar tragedy were not a matter of “if” but of “when”. 
The American Society of Safety Engineers was founded in New York City on October 14, 1911; between 1911 and 1913, 64 new laws were enacted that reduced working hours for women and children, and mandated fireproofing, the availability of fire extinguishers, automatic sprinklers, and better eating and toilet facilities for workers.
The Victims
Victims' profile

The majority of the factory’s workers were immigrant girls and women; thus, it was expected that the majority of its victims should share the same demographic.  Among the dead were girls from 14 years old to women in their late 30s and early 40.  Only 14 men died.  On average, the ages of the women skewed younger than the male victims by about 3 years.
The victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire are remembered today in a fixed memorial dedicated to them as part of a Workers’ Memorial in Queens, New York.
The site of the fire is commemorated.  The anniversary of the fire is also celebrated with demonstrations and speeches. 
As an event it stands as one of America’s greatest monuments to greed and exploitation – fortunately, some positive legislative acts came about as a result, certainly, too late to save the 146 dead, but perhaps saving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of others who would have followed in their wake.
Public indictment & memorial

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Nov 7, 2012 6:06pm
Great coverage, great photographs and a great reminder of those early years of industrialism. Indeed, you hit upon a subject and a specific issue that I believe SHOULD be remembered and contemplated in our own times. 5 BIG stars from me.
Nov 8, 2012 8:03am
I started this in early September before I decided to take a break. In the interim, I saw that another IB'er hit the front page last month with the same subject (written differently, of course). I didn't want to waste the work I'd already put in, so here it is, anyway. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Dec 5, 2012 8:10am
The death of 112 women in a recent fire at a factory in Bangladesh is eerily similar, unfortunately.
Dec 5, 2012 8:13am
Such building fires under unsafe conditions always end tragically. As long as there are slum lords and sweatshops there will be such tragedies. Thanks for reading.
Dec 5, 2012 9:37am
Great article! I love seeing well-researched history pieces. That was a real tragedy...something similar just happened in Bangladesh or India, I believe.
Dec 5, 2012 4:54pm
Yeah, javrsmith (see above) hipped me to the Bangladesh fire. Somebody should write about that... Thanks for reading!
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  1. Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives (33rd printing). New York City: Hill & Wang, 1993.
  2. Jennifer Rosenberg "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire." about.com. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  3. "Leap for Life, Leap of Death." csun.edu. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  4. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire." ilr.cornell.edu. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  5. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (US Department of Labor)." http://www.dol.gov/shirtwaist/. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  6. Douglas Linder "The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial." law2.umkc.edu. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  7. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire." en.wikipedia.org. 4/09/2012 <Web >
  8. Richard Zacks An Underground Education. New York City: Doubleday, 1997.
  9. "What Is a Shirtwaist?." pbs.org. 6/11/2012 <Web >
  10. "Biography: Harris and Blanck." pbs.org. 7/11/2012 <Web >

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