The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Transformed Worker’s Rights

January 31, 2022

In 1911, the Triangle Waist Company occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in New York City. The building was east of Washington Square Park, on the northwest corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. The Triangle Waist Company made women’s blouses, which were called “shirtwaists” and employed approximately 500 workers. These workers were mainly females who were young Italian and Jewish immigrants. They worked for nine hours each weekday and seven hours on Saturdays. They were paid between $7 and $12 per week, which was the equivalent of $197 to $337 per week in 2021 dollars.

Source: (Wikipedia/color).

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started in a scrap bin under a cutter’s table on the 8th floor. There was of course speculation as to the fire’s origins, with an article in The New York Times suggesting it may have been caused by the engines that ran the sewing machines, and Collier’s published articles related to patterns of arson in the garment industry as products fell out of fashion. The Insurance Monitor noted that insurance for manufacturers of shirtwaists was “fairly saturated with moral hazard” since the garment had recently fallen out of fashion. The owners of the company, Blanck and Harris, had had four earlier suspicious fires at their companies, but they were not suspected of arson in this case.

The Fire Started In A Scrap Bin

Working in the factory prior to the fire. Source: (Barbara's Bookstore/colorized).

The scrap bin contained cuttings accumulated over two months prior to the fire, and the Fire Marshal later concluded that the fire was likely caused by an unextinguished match or cigarette in that scrap bin. Smoking was banned in the factory, but the cutters sometimes snuck smoke breaks, exhaling cigarette smoke through their lapels. There were hundreds of pounds of scraps in the wooden bin, which was under a wooden table, and hanging fabrics surrounded it, allowing for the fire to quickly spread out of control. Once the fire broke out, a bookkeeper on the 8th floor used a telephone to call employees on the 10th, but there was no way to reach those on the 9th. There were, of course, exits, which included two freight elevators, a fire escape, and stairways to Greene Street and Washington Place. The workers were unable to use the Greene Street stairs because of the flames, and management kept the door to the Washington Place stairway locked as they wanted to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks, stop theft, and keep union organizers out. The key was held by a foreman who had already escaped using a different route. Some workers were able to escape via the Greene Street stairway, fleeing to the roof. Others packed themselves into the elevators while they were still operational. The fire escape was flimsy and not properly anchored to the building. Workers crowded onto it to flee the flames, and it collapsed with the heat and weight; 20 victims fell to their death on the concrete below.