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History Student Research Paper

Saturday – the Sabbath for so many of the workers of the garment industry in New York City 1911. A day of rest, reflection, and prayer. But for about 500 men, women, and children at the Triangle Waist Company located in the Asch building, Saturday March 25, 1911, was like all others – a work day. As the streets eight stories below bustled with life flowing into the nearby Washington Square Park, the women of the Triangle cut, stitched, and inspected shirtwaists which they themselves could hardly afford. Finally, the closing bell came – the women began to put their work away for the night and shimmy down the crowded aisles to the dressing room, many of them changed into street clothes for a night of entertainment on the boardwalk or a nearby dance hall. Then the first yell came – a fire had started and these women, many of whom spoke little to no English and who had never received instructions concerning fire drills were trapped. Trapped in a building that was not equipped to protect its workers, trapped because they had lost a fight one year earlier to gain recognition of their union. All that was left was for them was to burn. The owners of the factory, city inspectors, legislatures, and the people of New York had failed the 146 men, women, and children who that day lost their lives in a fire that should never had been allowed to happen. The layout of the Asch building and the failed strike of 1909 helped to lead up to the 1911 fire. The disappointing trial that followed the fire along with tremendous public support led to numerous reforms in legislation concerning industry regulation and inspired many prominent social reformers.

The Asch building, located at the intersection of Washington Place and Green Street in New York City, was completed January 15, 1901.1 The building, proven wrong after the wreckage of the 1911 fire was cleared away, was said to be fireproof. At the time of completion, the building, with only a few exceptions, was up to code. The Asch building, which was ten

1 Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 22.


stories tall, had been intended to be used for office space – it was never meant to house a factory, but by 1909 many of the high-rise buildings in downtown New York had become just that – layers of sweat shops high above the city streets below. The building codes at the time required that the number of staircases be consistent with the amount of square feet on each floor – without considering the type of work that would be performed in the building or the number of workers on each floor. A floor consisting of 5,000 square feet had to be equipped with 2 staircases with an added staircase for every additional 5,000 square feet. Based on that measure, the Asch building with an interior area of 10,000 square feet per floor should have had three staircases.2 Because at the time of construction, fire escapes were not mandatory, the Asch building received special permission to count its fire escape as a third set of stairs. By 1911, New York laws had changed to require buildings to construct fire escapes; however, after the fire, the Asch building’s architect, Julius Franke, pointed out that it was still the only building on the block that had a fire escape – making it one of the safest on the block in that respect.3 The building also did not have a sprinkler system even though the owners of the Triangle Company were no strangers to the danger of fires, since, by 1902, they had experienced seven fires in the buildings they operated their business in, four of which were in the Asch building.4

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was owned by business partners and brothers-in-law Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. Blanck and Harris had built their industry from the floor up. They themselves had immigrated to America from Russia in the early 1890s and had worked their way up in the garment industry, they had risked every hard-won dollar on their dream which had proven to pay off earning themselves the title of The Shirtwaist Kings.5 The shirtwaist was a

2 Stein, 23.

3 Stein, 120.

4 Stein, 172.

5 Triangle Fire, directed by Jamila Wignot, (PBS, 2011), Digital.


garment which allowed for heightened mobility and was a necessity for all fashionable young women at the time; however, the shirtwaist’s faltering popularity and heightened competition over the years forced prices lower. There were 500 blouse makers on the island of Manhattan alone, forcing the business partners to watch every penny they had to stay at the top of the industry.6 The Triangle company offered a moderately priced shirtwaist at $3 – a price that was still beyond the reach of many of the workers who produced it.7 To keep prices down, the women of the Triangle worked behind locked doors and had to have their personal belongings inspected at the end of each shift to be sure they were not smuggling out any material or finished blouses.

In the year of 1909 the women of the Triangle Factory had had enough, ver a hundred workers, most of them young women, met secretly one evening in September 1909 to hear representatives of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) exhort them to take up the cause of the union.8 Once Blanck and Harris heard talk of unionizing they fired more than one hundred workers. The women promptly went on strike. The Triangle strikers received support from members of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) as they clashed with police officers and prostitutes hired by Blanck and Harris to act as strikebreakers. Many of the women were arrested and fined between $5 to $10.9 Considering a high paid garment worker at the Triangle earned anywhere from $14 to $18 a week, the fine caused a tremendous burden on the women who were already suffering financially because of the strike.10 As the Triangle strike drug on, the ILGWU and WTUL called a meeting at the Great Hall of Cooper Union on

6 Triangle Fire.

7 Jo Ann E. Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 5.

8 Argersinger, 11.

9 Mrs. Belmont Aids Arrested Strikers, New York Times, December 19, 1909, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

10 Rosey Safran, The Washington Place Fire, Independent, April 20, 1911, 840-841.


November 22 to discuss their rights and the outlook of the strike. At the meeting, speakers debated what the striking women should do next including the possibility of a general strike; voices raised and tempers soared but all fell silent when one small women came to the stage – Clara Lemlich, a Russian immigrant who had only been in America for 6 years before strike broke out at the Triangle Factory. In Russia, she had been exposed to radical literature and mindsets [b]ut it was the conditions she experienced in the garment industry that drove her to embrace the ILGWU and call for support for her sister workers. That night she stirred the crowd when she exclaimed: I have no further patience for talk…I move that we go on a general strike.11 The halls filled with applause to the point where any argument against the idea of a general strike was useless, the following day, the garment workers general strike began, nicknamed The Uprising of 20,000, as 20,000 of New York’s garment workers abandoned their jobs in pursuit of higher wages, better workings conditions, and recognition of their unions. The strikers gained support from many of New York’s upper class women who earned the nickname the Mink Brigade, including Ann Morgan, J. P. Morgan’s daughter, and Mary Driere, who in the confusion of the picket line was arrested and quickly released after her identity was discovered. Many of the strikers who were arrested were bailed out and had their fines paid by members of the Mink Brigade.

After thirteen weeks of strikes and over 700 arrests, more than 300 New York garment companies settled with the strikers earning them better pay, shorter hours, and recognition of their unions. However, not all the girls were so lucky as their bosses continued to refuse recognizing their unions. While the strike drug on, many women from the Mink Brigade pulled their support, no longer feeling comfortable supporting the striking women who refused to take

11 Argersinger, 13.


better pay in exchange for abandoning their push for unionization. When the women from the Triangle factory finally went back to work, although they did receive increased wages, their goal of getting recognition for their union was not included in the final deal and their strike ended February 1910.

March 25, 1911 – one year after the general strike had ended the women at the Triangle factory continued their cutting, sewing, and inspecting. The official count of the workers present in the building that day will never be known as Blanck and Harris ran their business through contractors – employing a machine operator who in turn hired around a dozen women to work under their supervision, the payroll listed only the contractors. It never knew the exact total of its workers.12 Just as the closing bell rang, the first shouts of the fire rang out on the eighth floor. Amidst the panic, one woman was able to call up to the tenth floor to warn those workers of the danger spreading below. All but one of the workers from the tenth floor survived as many of them fled across the roof to nearby buildings, including Blanck and Harris. The women on the ninth floor however knew nothing of the fire until it was already too late.

Several unfortunate circumstances combined to make the extent of the fire more devastating than it might have been. The biggest problem was that the doors were locked, which was prohibited by New York law. The doors were kept locked both to ensure that the women could not leave without having their personal belongings searched and to keep union organizers out of the shop floors. Other contributing factors included there being no pressure in the emergency fire hoses in the stairwells, most of the women had never experienced a fire drill, and many did not know that the building even had a fire escape. The fire escape ended at the second

12 Stein, 161.


floor and the only way to reach the ground was a drop ladder 12 feet 9¾ inches long. Hanging free from the second floor, the ladder ended 5 feet 9½ inches above the glass skylight…13 which was found smashed under the fire escape that had collapsed during the fire. Also, the metal shudders that covered the windows leading to the fire escape opened outward and blocked the path of the women already on the escape trying to reach its lower levels. As mentioned above, the Asch building was fireproof, but the material inside of it was not. The excess material left after cutting out patterns was sold to a man named Louis Levy; however, in the year before the fire, Levy had only removed the excess fabric only six times, the last time, he explained in an interview after the fire, was January 15, 1911…altogether, it was 2,252 pounds.14 This excess material, along with the wooden work tables, and paper patterns helped to fuel the fire. Another major contributing factor to the increased death rate was the coincidence that the switch operator had not come into work that day. The switchboard, which was located on the tenth floor, needed to be manually changed in order for the different floors to contact each other. The woman on the eighth floor who was able to warn the tenth about the fire was never connected to the ninth floor, where the majority of the workers killed were putting away their work for the day unaware of the fire raging below their feet.

Looking back on the tragedy, it is easy to scoff at the fact that the firemen reporting to the scene used hoses that could only reach the seventh floor and ladders that could only reach the sixth floor. They relied on nets to catch the women who began jumping to their death rather than burn alive only to find that the impact of the jump from such a height left both the nets and the women broken on the pavement; however, "the most modern means of fighting fires were

13 Stein, 78.

14 Stein, 33.


available at the northwest corner of Washington Place and Green Street” including New York’s first unit of motorized fire engines and the highest-pressure fire hydrants available in the city.15 Earlier in 1911 the WTUL had reported that about half the total number [of factory workers] was employed above the seventh floor. That was just about the height beyond which the finest fire-fighting force in the country could not deal successfully with a fire.16 When the fire was finally contained, after just over a half an hour from its start, the death toll reached 146, all but 23 were women and the youngest victim, Sara Maltese, was only fourteen; her sister and mother also perished in the fire. In one afternoon, Salvatore Maltese lost every female member of his family – his wife and two daughters.17 Most of the victims, around 120, came from the ninth floor – final estimates came to around 53 who jumped to the pavement, 50 burned on the factory floor, more than 20 died as the fire escape collapsed, and 19 died by jumping down the elevator shaft.18

The fire was followed by an outpouring of sympathy for the victims. Many of the policemen who lowered the bodies of the women from the ninth floor were the same men who one short year earlier had beaten or arrested the strikers from that very factory. At a makeshift morgue, after a week of desperately trying to identify the bodies, only 7 remained without names. The community rallied together and raised about $120,000 to provide relief to the families who had lost loved ones or found themselves unable to work.19 Many of the women who lost their lives were major contributors to their family’s income. It was not just families in New York that were affected by the disaster as among the dead were women who each month would

15 Stein, 17.

16 Stein, 28-29.

17 Argersinger, 16.

18 Triangle Fire.

19 Stein, 128.


send money back to their family in a number of countries including Russia, Austria, Palestine, Jamaica, Hungary, Romania, and England.20 On April 5, 1911, a public funeral was held for the seven unidentified victims. The funeral procession was made up of 120,000 marchers with another 280,000 watching as they passed. The procession consisted of ight black hearses, with white trimming, carrying the bodies of six unidentified women and a man.21 The eighth held fragments of the dead that did not match up with anyone in particular – they were laid to rest at Evergreens Cemetery after a Catholic, Episcopal, and Hebrew service.22 The bodies were buried and the prayers had all been said, many of the families had begun their healing. But that was not the end, many social reformers began to question who was to blame, and to use the emotional response of the community to push through reforms that were not possible before the fire.

For many of the grieving families the resulting trial was a disappointment. Blanck and Harris were charged with 2 counts of manslaughter and the entire trial was riding on the almost impossible task of deciding whether the two owners knew at the time of the fire that the door on the ninth floor Washing Place side of the building was locked. The men were acquitted as there was not adequate proof that they were aware of the door being locked at the time of the fire. After the acquittal, in the local New York magazine The Outlook, one writer reminded the people of New York that it should not be forgotten that the people of the whole city are guilty also of future manslaughter unless they instantly demand that laws are enacted and enforced to safeguard life to the last limit of possibility.23 After three years, the civil lawsuit against Blanck and Harris was finally settled, requiring them to pay the families of 23 of the victims – the

20 Stein, 122.

21 120,000 Pay Tribute to the Fire Victims,New York Times, April 6, 1911, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

22 Stein, 155.

23 The Acquittal in the Triangle Case, The Outlook, January 16, 1912, 8.


payment was $75. $75 for the life of someone who could have been saved had New York laws concerning industry been more broad and more strictly enforced.24 When comparing the little amount of $75 to the amount of insurance the owners had collected, which came to $65,000 more than the losses they suffered in the fire25 from the 37 different insurance companies that were covering Blanck and Harris at the time – which could have come to approximately $445 to each of the families of the 146 the victims lost in the fire.26

The amount of public support for the families of victims was monumental and helped lead to support for changes in policy to attempt to make sure a disaster like this would not happen again. The public movement after the Triangle Fire toward reform bridged the gap between social reformers and the voting block of Tammany Hall, gave rise to several prominent reformers, and helped to make New York’s protective reforms a model for the rest of American law makers. Shortly after the fire, the Factory Investigation Committee was established and funded by local government. Included on the commission were reformers such as Francis Perkins, who would go on to be the Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration and who had been a member of the crowed watching as the Triangle factory burned, Mary Dreier, who had been arrested during the 1909 strikes, Al Smith and Robert Wagner, who were major players in Tammany Hall. During the first year of its four-year existence, the FIC inspected over 1,000 factories and heard over 2,000 witnesses who provided 3,500 pages of testimony.27 After one year of work eight of the fifteen bills the FIC proposed became law and in the following year twenty six of the twenty-eight bills proposed by the commission were signed into law.28

24 Lives at $75, The Literary Digest, March 28, 1914, 685.

25 Argersinger, 30.

26 Stein, 176.

27 Argersinger, 31.

28 Kristin Downey, The Women Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Francis Perkins – Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), 51.


One of the first laws proposed by the FIC was prohibiting smoking in factories, which was one of the likely causes of the Triangle Fire.

The Triangle Fire drew so much public concern in part because of the feeling of failure –the community had failed to protect these women from the fire. They had turned their backs on the girls when they had tried to strike for better conditions and watched as they paid the ultimate price with their lives. Although the fire occurred in New York City, families all around the world were affected by the loss of their primary income base and the horrors of the fire left many women unable to work for years due to the trauma. The fire itself was a monumental point in history but the reform movement that followed is something that will live on forever in American industry and politics. It is easy to wish that 146 workers should not have had to lose their lives in order to gain reforms, which were so desperately needed in the factories of America. Had reform come earlier, they would have been saved too, they could have been trained with fire drills or the fire might not have started in the first place. But the reforms were not in place, the fire did start, and they lost their lives. The memory of the Triangle Waist Company workers lives on today. Whether modern workers are aware of these women’s impact or not, around the country when thousands of workers enter factories, they have the women of the Triangle and the courageous reformers who grew out of the tragedy to thank for the safety measures that have been put in place for their security.


Works Cited

Argersinger, Jo Ann E..The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.

Downey, Kristin. The Women Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Francis Perkins – Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage.New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Independent (New York)

The Literary Digest

New York Times

Outlook (New York)

Stein, Leon The Triangle Fire. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Triangle Fire. Directed by Jamila Wignot. Public Broadcasting Company, 2011. Digital Triangle Fire. Accessed October 22, 2016.