In the early 1900s, The Triangle Waist Company was one of the largest makers of shirtwaists, a popular women’s blouse that had a tight waist and puffy sleeves. Approximately 500 people—mostly immigrant women—worked at the Triangle Waist Company’s New York factory, located in the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. The factory’s employees worked long hours—six days a week—in cramped quarters and for low pay. Many of these workers were as young as thirteen-years-old.
Today, 100 years later, all American workers have the legal right to fair wages and overtime pay for any work exceeding 40 hours per week. We also have laws in place providing workers with safe workplaces and laws that prevent children from being exploited by employers. However, this was not the case in the early 1900s. In fact, workers would have to wait until 1938 to finally be granted rights in their workplaces thanks to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Tragically, 146 workers at the Triangle Waist Factory never got to enjoy such rights. On Saturday, March 25th, 1911, minutes before quitting time, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. Most of the factory’s workers were done for the day and were busy gathering their belongings and collecting their paychecks. Then, a worker noticed that a small fire had started in a scrap bin. The fire spread quickly to other areas and was accelerated by the contents of the room—tissue paper patterns, cotton scraps, and wooden tables. Workers rushed in panic to throw pails of water on the fire, but they were unable to stop the fire’s spread. As smoke began to overtake the room, workers raced to get the fire hoses that were available on each floor. However, no water came out of the hoses.
One female worker attempted to call the upper two floors of the Asch Building and warn workers there of the fire, but she was only able to alert workers on the tenth floor; ninth floor workers had no way of knowing that a fire was raging out of control just one floor beneath them. Workers from the eighth and tenth floors sought to flee to safety, many rushing to one of the four elevators, each designed to carry a maximum of 15 people. Panicked workers crowded into the elevators. While several made it to safety, the elevator shafts soon filled with smoke and flames and there was not enough time for the elevators to make return trips to the top floors to rescue more trapped workers. Trapped in smokey darkness, remaining workers ran to the fire escape, however, only around 20 reached the bottom successfully. Twenty-five others died when the fire escape collapsed. As the fire continued to spread, some workers managed to gain access to the roof where they could be helped to the safety of nearby buildings. Scores of others were not as lucky. Many on the eighth and ninth floors were stuck. The elevators quit working. The fire hoses were dry. The fire escapes had collapsed. And, due to a company policy, the doors that lead to the safety of the hallways were locked. As the fire spread and the plumes of smoke robbed them of oxygen, many workers were soon confronted with a difficult decision: Stay in the burning building, or leap out the windows.
The fire department was alerted to the fire within fifteen minutes of it’s start, but when they arrived on scene and raised their ladder, they found that it only reached to the sixth floor. As the fire on the eighth floor continued to burn out of control, firefighters and onlookers watched as workers leapt to their deaths.
Brave firefighters managed to get the fire under control within a half hour, but by then, 146 employees were dead. The bodies of the deceased were transported to an East River pier where thousands of people lined up to identify the remains of loved ones.
It is not certain what started the fire in the scrap bin, though it is believed that a cigarette butt may have been tossed into the bin igniting the cotton scraps. Survivors and victims’ families searched for someone to blame. The company’s owners were even tried for manslaughter, but were found not guilty. In the end, the fire did at least help expose the hazardous conditions that were ubiquitous in America’s factories. Shortly after the Triangle fire, New York City passed a large number of new fire, safety, and building codes and cities around the country followed their example.
Today, it is important to take a moment to remember these workers and not allow their deaths to pass unappreciated. These were young men and women who died just because they went to work that Saturday. Thanks to them, and to citizen activists, labor leaders, unions, and lawmakers, all of us are safer in our workplaces. All of us are guaranteed much more pleasant working conditions, better pay, overtime, and more. We must not forget how and why we have those rights.