If any single incident could provide a manifesto for the existence of labor unions, it is the horrific fire that incinerated 146 women and men at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911. The conditions of their employment were brutal, and a direct cause of their deaths.
Their biggest handicap, of course, was that most of them were female. Underpaid, shamefully exploited, and prohibited on pain of the sack from doing anything about it, the women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were mostly recent immigrants. There were roughly 500 of them, making women’s blouses. Their specialty was the ‘shirtwaist’ – tight at the waist with puffy sleeves. They were crowded into the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building on the comer of Washington Place, working long hours six days a week. Some were as young as 13.
When fire started on the eighth floor, it took hold quickly. The fire hoses had no water supply. Everyone rushed for the elevators, but they burned out after only a few terrifyingly overcrowded trips. And in the melee, nobody told the women on the ninth floor about the fire. Most of the tenth floor crowded out onto the roof. On the ninth they found the fire escape had buckled, crashing down on their shrieking friends. Doors to other floors were locked as company policy. That left only the windows, or the flames. Outside the fire brigade’s ladders could only reach the sixth floor. They watched as young girls in flames hurled themselves like meteors from the ninth floor. Nearly 100 of them lay dead or dying from injuries and burns. The rest were burned to cinders at their machines.
It was at least a form of martyrdom. Their deaths led inexorably to new legislation improving fire, safety and building codes.
When was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: March 25 1911
Where was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Washington Place, New York, USA
What was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire death toll: 146 women and men died, and ‘many’ were injured.
You should know: The owners of the factory were tried for manslaughter but acquitted. But thousands had witnessed he horror and seen the inhumanity of the women’s working conditions. Public revulsion forced even the most recalcitrant to make improvements and led to the creation of the Factory investigating commission, whose recommendations initiated what has been called ‘the golden era in remedial factory legislation’.