TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE – 100 YEAR LATER
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That fire was a horrifying tragedy, but it led to one hugely important positive outcome: the growth and acceptance of the American labor movement. In this age of wholesale attack on the labor movement, today is a crucial time to stop and remember the incredibly important function that labor unions have provided American workers—and American society as a whole. There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at labor unions; but in the fervor to attack them, their opponents seem to forget all the legitimate value they bring and the vital gains they have achieved. (And, it might be good to remember that the opponents also may be legitimately criticized for the abuses on the other side, despite what benefits they have achieved.)
I was speaking today to a young woman who did not know the story of this tragic part of our city—and country’s—history. So I believe it is a good time to take a moment to recount it. At the moment, there are two wonderful resources available online: “Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire: 1911—100 Years Later—2011,” at www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/index.html, put together by Cornell’s ILR School (formerly the NY School of Industrial and Labor Relations), which, in addition to a wonderful overall history of the event and its aftermath (included below), has primary source documents, photographs, and a list six previously unidentified victims (q.v., a very interesting and personal bit at the very end of this Alert); and, a collection of articles from on the New York Times website, at www.cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire.
I begin with some photographs which appeared in the Times at the time, from a piece by David Dunlap, “Triangle Fire: A Frontier in Photojournalism,” who points out that among the reasons “the Triangle fire embed itself so firmly in the popular conscience…[were] the existence in 1911 of a growing photojournalism corps, ever-improving printing technology and a public hungry for images. …Within 24 hours of the fire, candidly brutal pictures of the tragedy were in circulation… Within 48 hours, readers…could visit the gutted interior of the crucible itself to see pictures of a locked stairway gate. In its sheer scope, coverage of the Triangle fire was one of the earliest such graphic, public, inescapable and almost instantaneous media assaults on genteel sensibility.” I have included the following images from Dunlap’s article: 1) “American Press Association. ‘Credit obliterated, presumably American Press Association. “American Press Association.
who died that day, either burning to death or jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames. Most of the victims were recent immigrants, mostly Jewish (102) and Italian, all but 23 were women, mostly aged sixteen to twenty-three. Many of the deaths occurred because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits.
The sad truth is
that immigrants are still being shamelessly and dangerously exploited in the
garment industry today. As the
Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the
And, as Nadia Sussman points out in the New York Times,
A century after 146 garment workers died in a fire
at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, new immigrants still try to sew their way
to the American dream. But these days, especially in
And it is not only in the garment industry that such abuses continue to take place.
The disparity of
wealth in out country continues to widen; and, while there are more people
living at levels of affluence heretofore unheard of in the world, real wages
for the vast majority of people in the
Here follow the two important histories, the first told by Joseph Burger in the New York Times, the second, a far more complete overview—including the legal aftermath of the event and a very informative look at how the event illustrates the exploitation of garment workers then and even now—was done by the ILR School at Cornell.
By JOSEPH BERGER
Saturday, March 25, 1911. The work week was ending
at the Triangle
Waist Company factory in
On the eighth floor, flames suddenly leaped from a wastebasket under a table in the cutters’ area.
While workers frantically struggled with pails of water to douse it, the fire hopscotched to other waste bins and snared the paper patterns hanging from strings overhead.
The fire spread quickly — so quickly that in half an hour it was over, having consumed all it could in the large, airy lofts on the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building, half a block east of Washington Square Park.
In its wake, the smoldering floors and wet streets were strewn with 146 bodies, all but 23 of them young women.
In the 100 years since the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, as it is commonly recorded in history books, the story has been told many times about the poor, largely immigrant girls who toiled long hours inside an overcrowded factory only to find themselves one early spring afternoon trapped in a firestorm on floors where exit doors may have been locked. At least 50 workers concluded that the better option was to jump.
The ironies are many: The building was fireproof, and it still stands today. Like the Titanic a year later, it was considered state of the art, with conditions far safer than what existed before. The owners of the factory were themselves immigrants, but they became wealthy by employing newcomers at low wages at their shirtwaist factory, one of the largest in the city. And while two years earlier those owners had managed to withstand a 13-week industrywide strike aimed at achieving better conditions and union representation, the fire accomplished those goals and more.
On that Saturday 100 years ago, about 4:40 p.m., workers who had been perched at their machines since 8 a.m. were ending their week. As the whir of the sewing machines subsided and some workers headed for the cloakrooms for their hats and coats, flames were spotted in the wastebasket.
Workers unraveled a hose from a stairwell fixture, but no water came out. The building also had no sprinklers, nor had the factory held fire drills. The fire began to race across the 100-foot-long loft.
Workers rushed to an exit door leading to
As they fled, one Triangle supervisor on that fiery eighth floor placed a warning phone call to the executive offices on the 10th floor, where the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were at work. Visiting were two of Mr. Blanck’s young daughters and their governess, waiting for a promised shopping trip.
The 60 or so executives, pressers and packers and
two children escaped through choking smoke and flames onto freight elevators or
up stairs to the roof. There, a
But, in her alarm, the worker who had taken the call on the 10th floor never hung up the phone. That prevented anyone from calling to alert the 250 workers on the ninth floor. Only when they saw flames rising up the air shaft, incinerating tables where shirtwaists were examined for workmanship, did the seamstresses, cutters and support workers who were crowded among eight rows of sewing machine tables realize they were in danger.
Many of the 250 workers crammed the usual exit, a
door on the
Others, seeing the press of bodies, hopped from
table to table to reach the
There, a young man twisted the lock of the
Dozens managed to make their way into the two freight elevators, where their operators, Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo, returned again and again to the burning floors, risking their own lives to save 150 people, according to “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” a 2003 history by David Von Drehle.
Some who could not crowd into the elevators attempted to slide down the cable or jumped or fell down the shaft, and soon the elevators stopped, one so weighed down by the crush of 19 bodies that it could no longer rise.
As hundreds watched from nine
floors below on
But when the ladders stretched only to the sixth floor, 30 feet below, and flames began to singe their hair and consume their skirts, many jumped, often in twos and threes — 54 of them altogether, by the count of William Gunn Shepherd, a United Press reporter who was first to the scene.
Witnesses reported seeing a man at a
“They were all as unresisting as if he were helping them into a street car instead of into eternity,” Shepherd reported. “He saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames and his was only a terrible chivalry.”
Workers who pressed onto the fire escape in a rear air shaft found their way blocked by swinging metal shutters. Had they made it all the way down, they would have found that it ended treacherously a full floor above a basement skylight.
With so many people crammed onto the fire escape with nowhere to go, it collapsed. Two dozen bodies were later recovered among the broken glass below the air shaft on the basement floor.
As the sun set, policemen and firemen recovered the
charred corpses, lowering some by block and tackle to the sidewalk to join the
broken bodies of the co-workers who had jumped. A parade of vehicles
transported the bodies to the Charities Pier on
Tens of thousands showed up, the voyeurs and pickpockets mingled with grief-stricken relatives who were seeking any telltale features — hair braids, shoes, jewelry, gold teeth — so they could pick out their mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers from among the scorched faces.
All but six were identified. On the day the city buried them in a shared grave at the Cemetery of the Evergreens on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, the grief and anger of the city spilled out onto the downtown streets in a somber, rain-soaked funeral march for those “unknowns.”
Hundreds of thousands made their way on routes from
the north and south, meeting in
For nearly 100 years the names of those six remained unknown — until a persistent researcher, Michael Hirsch, ended the mystery, just in time for the centennial of their deaths.
Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart
Even though many workers toiled under one roof in the Asch building, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners subcontracted much work to individuals who hired the hands and pocketed a portion of the profits. Subcontractors could pay the workers whatever rates they wanted, often extremely low. The owners supposedly never knew the rates paid to the workers, nor did they know exactly how many workers were employed at their factory at any given point. Such a system led to exploitation.
Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the
The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union organized workers in the women's clothing trade. Many of the garment workers before 1911 were unorganized, partly because they were young immigrant women intimidated by the alien surroundings. Others were more daring, though. All were ripe for action against the poor working conditions. In 1909, an incident at the Triangle Factory sparked a spontaneous walkout of its 400 employees. The Women's Trade Union League, a progressive association of middle class white women, helped the young women workers picket and fence off thugs and police provocation. At a historic meeting at Cooper Union, thousands of garment workers from all over the city followed young Clara Lemlich's call for a general strike.
With the cloakmakers' strike of 1910, a historic agreement was reached, that established a grievance system in the garment industry. Unfortunately for the workers, though, many shops were still in the hands of unscrupulous owners, who disregarded basic workers' rights and imposed unsafe working conditions on their employees.
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire
broke out on the top floors of the
Survivors recounted the horrors they had to endure, and passers-by and reporters also told stories of pain and terror they had witnessed. The images of death were seared deeply in their mind's eye.
Many of the Triangle factory workers were women, some as young as
14 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish
immigrants who had come to the
In the weeks that followed, the grieving city identified the dead,
sorted out their belongings, and reeled in numbed grief at the atrocity that
could have been averted with a few precautions. The International Ladies'
Protesting voices arose, bewildered and angry at the lack of concern and the greed that had made this possible. The people demanded restitution, justice, and action that would safeguard the vulnerable and the oppressed. Outraged cries calling for action to improve the unsafe conditions in workshops could be heard from every quarter, from the mainstream conservative to the progressive and union press.
Workers flocked to union quarters to offer testimonies, support mobilization, and demand that Triangle owners Harris and Blanck be brought to trial. The role that strong unions could have in helping prevent such tragedies became clear. Workers organized in powerful unions would be more conscious of their rights and better able to obtain safe working conditions.
Shortly after the fire, the Executive Board of the Ladies' Waist
and Dress Makers' Union, Local No. 25 of the ILGWU,
(the local to which some of the Triangle factory workers belonged), met to plan
relief work for the survivors and the families of the victims. Soon several
progressive organizations came forward to help with the relief effort.
Representatives from the Women's Trade Union League, the Workmen's Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Daily Forward, and the United
Hebrew Trades formed the Joint Relief Committee, which, over the course of the
next months, allotted lump sums, often to be remitted abroad, to
In addition, its Executive Committee distributed weekly pensions, supervised and cared for the young workers and children placed in institutions of various kinds, and secured work and proper living arrangements for the workers after they recuperated from their injuries.
The Joint Relief Committee worked together with the American Red Cross, which also collected funds from the general public. Estimates indicate that the Joint Relief Committee alone administered about $30,000.
Immediately after the fire, Triangle owners Blanck and Harris declared in interviews that their building was fireproof, and that it had just been approved by the Department of Buildings. Yet the call for bringing those responsible to justice and reports that the doors of the factory were locked at the time of the fire prompted the District Attorney's office to seek an indictment against the owners. On April 11, a grand jury indicted Harris and Blanck on seven counts, charging them with manslaughter in the second degree under section 80 of the Labor Code, which mandated that doors should not be locked during working hours.
On December 27, twenty-three days after the trial had started, a jury acquitted Blanck and Harris of any wrong doing. The task of the jurors had been to determine whether the owners knew that the doors were locked at the time of the fire.
Customarily, the only way out for workers at quitting time was
through an opening on the
Twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch building. On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, Harris and Blanck settled. They paid 75 dollars per life lost.
Harris and Blanck were to continue their defiant attitude toward the authorities. Just a few days after the fire, the new premises of their factory had been found not to be fireproof, without fire escapes, and without adequate exits.
In August of 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.
In December of 1913, the interior of his factory was found to be littered with rubbish piled six feet high, with scraps kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. This time, instead of a court appearance and a fine, he was served a stern warning. The Triangle Waist Company was to cease operations in 1918, but the owners maintained throughout that their factory was a "model of cleanliness and sanitary conditions," and that it was "second to none in the country."
And, as for that recent discovery
of the identity of the six unidentified victims, here is the
information, later historians had assumed these were young, recent immigrants
without families or anyone that could identify them. That explanation never
satisfied independent researcher Michael Hirsch, who has spent several years
poring over manuscripts, newspapers, and official records to sift through the
information and misinformation that had grown up around this tragic event. The
Engaged to be
married on Easter Sunday, she lived at
Russian immigrant, she lived at
immigrant, he was recognized as missing in the aftermath of the fire but his
family and friends held out hope that he was still alive. A news story carried
a plea from the family as to whether he was staying with friends. He was said
to have been engaged to the Jannie Blanck, the cousin of Triangle owner Max Blanck. He lived at
Listed in various
places as Mary or Rosa Prestifilippo, she lived at
And, as for the personal piece, it turns out that the last
of these, Fannie Rosen, was the great
aunt of Judy Zimmerman, wife of my
dear old friend and
is amazing how just an article in the New York Times can change a family's
profound sadness and its narrative. !00 years ago my wife Judy's great
aunt perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. For years I had heard
the story of how she came to NYC, how she managed to get a job at the Triangle
factory just two days before the fire and that she perished in that fire.
Judy's grandfather was part of the family that was brought over to see his
sister's gravesite. They then stayed in
But for some unknown reason her name was not on the lists published in the latest book. 140 names are on that list - but 146 people perished. A short time ago in the New York Times an article was written about Michael Hirsch's attempt to find out the names of those buried under a common stone in a
In reading the article in the NYTImes, I saw that one of the photos bore the name Fannie Rosen, the name of Judy's great aunt. It also indicated that her name had been Faigele Resnick (the earlier family name that had been changed). I jumped up, informed Judy, We called the newspaper and were given a way to reach Michael Hirsch. Judy was able to put him in touch with her mother Ida, now nearly 90 years old and another aunt and the rest of the family who live mainly in
For many years in the family, the narrative was part of history but no one knew where she had been buried. Judy's grandfather was very young and had no idea. So for years the family could just remember the story. but it lived. And now finally thanks to Michael Hirsch and Joe Berger who wrote the article the family can visit her final resting place, recite kaddish and remember this young woman and two of her now elderly nieces and great nephews and nieces could close the circle. Faigele Resnick , Fanny Rosen, aleha hashalom, your tragic death brought Judy's family to the