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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

In case you’ve missed this news, today marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—one of the deadliest industrial fires in American history and a turning point for worker’s safety and unionization in America.

The factory was predominantly staffed with young women who lived in Little Italy and the Lower East Side, and when we are giving walking tours of those neighborhoods, our clients are sometimes surprised to discover that the factory was in Greenwich Village. So much of that neighborhood—including the Asch Building, where the fire occurred—is now dominated by NYU that it is easy to forget that the stretch of the Village on both sides of Broadway was once a vital part of New York’s garment industry.

In Inside the Apple we dedicate an entry to the fire. We note:

Long before the fire broke out, the factory was infamous for its poor labor practices. In 1909, New York’s largest job action, known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” began when workers walked off the job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. For months, the majority of the city’s shirtwaist factories were crippled by the strike, but the factory owners refused to budge. Though the International Ladies Garment Workers Union brokered a settlement in 1910 that stopped short of forcing the recognition of their union, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, refused to agree to it. The factory’s workers went back to work having gained few concessions.

On the day of the fire, a Saturday, only about half of the factory’s 500 employees had come to work. Just as the afternoon shift was ending, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Typical of garment centers of the day, the factory floor was a virtual tinderbox, with clothes, scraps of cloth, and unswept trimmings everywhere. When the fire started, the majority of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape,* but those on the ninth floor had been locked in. This was done, some speculated, to cut down on unauthorized breaks, though it is also likely that it kept union organizers off the factory floor. Soon the elevators stopped working, which meant that the only remaining exit was the fire escape. Tragically, the fire escape had been poorly installed and maintained, and when too many young women began to climb down, it collapsed beneath their weight, sending them plunging to their death. The rest of the women on the ninth floor were then faced with jumping out of windows or waiting to burn to death. Many chose the former, raining down on the assembled crowd from above. The fire department did arrive, but as their ladders reached no higher than the sixth floor, it did little to save the women. In the end, 146 women died, most of them at the scene—some were only thirteen years old.

* Blanck and Harris, the owners, were able to get up to the roof and escape from there.

A number of events are commemorating the fire and its aftermath:

·         Today at 10:00 a.m., a parade will begin at the south end of Union Square Park and wend its way to the site of the Asch Building (today called the Brown Building), where there will be speeches by the mayor and others. Marchers in the parade will carry 146 shirtwaists on poles, one to commemorate each woman who died.

·         If you are interested in where these young women lived, the Bowery Boys put together a post that maps out all of their homes, some of them in outer boroughs. Many of those places will have the names of victims inscribed in chalk on the sidewalk courtesy of Ruth Sergel and a group of volunteers; see for more information.

·         Today at 7:00 p.m. in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, join artists, storytellers, and others for “100 Years After: The Triangle Fire Remembered and Rethought.”

·         PBS aired a documentary on the fire earlier this month on American Experience; it is available to stream online at

·         HBO’s documentary, Triangle: Remembering the Fire is being shown on CNN this Saturday, March 26, at 11:00PM (EST), so that anyone with basic cable can see it.

·         NYU’s Grey Art gallery has an exhibition through July 9 entitled Art, Memory, Place, that commemorates the fire and its victims.

·         The New York Times has provided a number of interesting articles and blog entries in the past few days, including a look at how the fire shaped the lives of such public servants as Frances Perkins and an article about how the fire was one of the first big tragedies captured by photojournalists.

* * *

Read more about the Triangle fire in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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1 comment:

jb007 said...

wow its untolerable...

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