The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

March 25, 1911
Within 18 minutes 146 people (mostly women) dead
A "fireproof" building that was 9 stories

I happened to catch this special on PBS* the other night. If you have an interest in knowing about sweatshops in the US and the exploitation of women in the early 1900s you should definitely watch this special. But be warned, it's not for the faint-of-heart. The fire and its outcome is also what lead to the beginning of the labor union movement. This was a factory that employed women (even girls as young as 15) to sew hundreds of Shirtwaists for pennies. Books such as Theodore Drieser's, An American Tragedy, includes a glimpse into the life of women in sewing factories. Sometimes there are small mentions in history books. But until I saw this special I had never heard of this fire. Each time I come across something like this I think that this is just one example of things lost as time passes. Important lessons that brought about change that affected our lives. I didn't even know there was a coalition created to create a memorial to these workers until I began researching this story more.

The Triangle Fire is what brought about some of the labor laws that protected factory workers regarding health, disability and fire prevention. The division of Fire prevention was created because of this fire as well. This resulted in laws that included: all doors in must open outwards, no doors are to be locked during business hours, sprinkler systems must be installed if a business employs more then 25 people above the ground floor, and fire drills are mandatory if a building doesn't have a sprinkler system.* Unfortunate that so many lives had to be lost in order to protect human life.

What a horrible tragedy especially considering that this building was fireproof. One family, the husband had to collect the remains of his wife and two daughters, he was left without a family in just minutes.

Even though the building was fireproof the workers weren't protected from someone who had actually locked a door that could have been used for escape! Why was it locked? No one admits to locking it or knowing why it was locked. The only excuse that was ever given was the fear of theft and that the owners of the factory had no idea that it had been locked. A list* of other fire hazards that were present:

  • Locked door to the stair well
  • Rusty fire escape that collapsed
  • Cluttered work spaces
  • Short ladders only reached 6th floor
  • Not enough water pressure
  • Long wooden tables became obstacles
  • Wicker baskets full of scraps
  • Oily floors spread the fire quickly
  • Fire nets failed to catch jumpers
  • No sprinkler system, only pails of water
  • Flammable barrel of oil
  • Boxes crowding the exit
  • Lack of a required third staircase
PBS produced a program that isn't for the squeamish. It is a special though that brings to life the working conditions for many immigrants and poorer people in the early 1900s. It shows that while many of us now sew for the love of doing so, there are many people in the past and even now who labor for a meager wage in unpleasant conditions to support their family.

As I turn on my sewing machine with its computer brain, that can just about sew on its own, I will think about these women who lost their life as they sat bent over their machines creating garments just to feed their family.

Triangle Fire Centennial Commemoration from Ruth Sergel on Vimeo.

sources: History Buff: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
Cornell University: The Triangle Factory Fire
Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition

3 reviews:

picciolo said...

What a sad sad story, but an important one you would think would be more widely known. I think I need to read An American Tragedy again now, you have reminded me of Theodor Drieser who I haven't read for years
: )

Ginny Huber said...

I remember reading about this, Rose and as a new Yorker, hearing about it; You did a lot of research here and it's an interesting post!

susan springer anderson said...

I missed the PBS special last week but a friend and collaborator of mine will be putting a post up about the triangle shirtwaist factory fire anniversary on her blog on 3/28/11. We will be doing a written and visual piece about it. It's an important event to remember- especially since it comes during women's history month. Thanks for your post!

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