With the overpopulation of immigrants and the rise of industrialization in New York City in the nineteenth century, the number of factories and sweatshops was rising. The new technologies of production that enabled the mechanization of clothing production in the 1860s also accelerated the process of sweated work. These technologies, including the band-saw cutting machine that cut multiple layers of cloth simultaneously and the sewing machine that replaced hand sewing, led to the creation of ready-to-wear garments and the replacement of skilled male tailors and seamstresses by semi skilled sewing-machine operators working as outworkers. These semi skilled sewing-machine operators working were immigrants coming to the United States of America searching for work, for the most part. Increasing urbanization expanded the market for ready-made goods and clothing at the same time that the pool of available labor for the industry was growing.1 Likewise, with the growth of factory labor, more and more immigrants were provided with jobs which made the economy in the United States of America thrive. However, the working conditions in these factories were less than ideal. In fact, people questioned labor laws and the safety in these buildings. With the start of New York City thriving with factory labor came a specific sweatshop called The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; which started off successful like any other sweatshop, until disaster struck.
On March 25th 1911, hundreds of immigrants started their day by going to work in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory which was located in the Asch Building on 22-29 Washington Place in New York City. Most of these immigrants were young females hoping to start a new flourishing life in the city even though they were working in terrible conditions and were being underpaid. For these immigrants, this was a new opportunity and they were going to take it. This was a daily routine and what was supposed to be another ordinary day of tough work in harsh conditions ended up being something more; a tragedy. A fire broke out causing 146 deaths and 71 injuries. This was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City which sparked people to advocate for change and trying to improve safety conditions in factories. Unfortunately, a fire like this was the only way that anything was going to change in the city regarding labor conditions in factories. According to a New York Times article written after the fire took place, Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned and while the fire was going on, 141 young men and women, at least 125 of them mere girls, were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below. A heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour. The firemen were too busy dealing with the fire to pay any attention to people whom they supposed beyond their aid.2 A fire like this was detrimental to those affected by it first hand and second hand. A fire this grand should not have ever even happened if it weren’t for the lack of safety regulations and labor laws at the current time. What burned so quickly and disastrously for the victims were shirtwaists, hanging on lines above tiers of workers, sewing machines placed so closely together that there was hardly aisle room for the girls between them, and shirtwaist trimmings and cuttings which littered the floors above the eighth and ninth stories. The firemen did not even pay attention to half of the victims of this fire because they felt that there was nothing that they could do in order to help them.
If one were to step into the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, one would be shocked and outraged by what he/she sees. The building as a whole only had one fire escape. That being said, it collapsed during the rescue effort. There was no way to get out of the building unless people jumped out of the windows, many of them, already blocked. By jumping, these workers were basically guaranteeing their own deaths, but at least by jumping there was a chance that they would live whereas if they stayed inside with the fire, they would be sure to die. Along with the untrustworthy fire escape, there were long tables and bulky machines crowding the rooms. There was no way to move around the room safely. Along with that, there were plenty of immigrants standing around working causing there to be even less room to move around. At the current time, there were no limits as to how many people could occupy one room. It is no shock that these people were trapped and many did not have a way out because of these obstacles in the way. Likewise, it is not shock that the fire spread so quickly if the room was packed with flammable objects. The managers of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, even locked the doors in order to ensure that the workers were not taking any unauthorized breaks. Overall, with these unsafe conditions, a tragedy did strike. This tragic event in history was the cause of a fight and ambition in order to guarantee safety and rights for labor workers. 3
At five minutes to 9, four hours after the fire in the Triangle Waist Company factory was discovered, the first living person was found in the debris. He was Hyman Meshel, 21 years old, and single, of 332 East Fifteenth Street, who worked on the eighth floor and was on that floor when the fire threw the garment workers of the waist company, by whom he was employed, into a panic.4 During the nineteenth century, The fire departments were not as strong and the police departments were not as vast. As soon as there was word of fire, the fire department did not rush to help right away. The first victim was not even found until four hours after the fire. This shows just how much The United States of America grew over time as a society. According to an article by The New York Times, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire was the worst calamity that has befallen since the burning of the slocum which is when a great fire on the ship the PS Slocum striked, where passengers faced the horror of being drowned or burned alive.5 The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was practically all over in half an hour. It was confined to three floors the eighth, ninth, and tenth of the building. But it was the most murderous fire that New York had seen in many years.6 People in New York City at the time were unprepared for a tragedy this horrific. However, by dealing with this tragedy, this provided people with the understanding that something needs to be done about these factory’s safety conditions. Since this fire, people would now begin to understand the necessity for safety and reformation.
Immediately after this disaster, society as a whole was panicked. Immediately after this tragedy, there was massive press coverage. Many articles were published in newspapers like The New York Times. People from all over and especially in New York City were wondering what this disaster means to the future of industrialization in New York City. With a tragedy like this, the image burned into American public’s minds. While the factory owners refused to make any changes themselves, things began to change in the workforce. The fire ignited people’s interest in workers’ safety, in fair wages, in establishing dignity for America’s working men and women.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the nation’s most deadly and horrific, led to some of the nation’s strongest changes in worker safety in the manufacturing industry. From the ashes of tragedy rose the phoenix of reform.7
“Aftermath.” U.S. Department of Labor – Aftermath, www.dol.gov/shirtwaist/aftermath.htm.
Lal, Jayati. “Sweatshops.” In Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, edited by Patrick L. Mason. 2nd
ed. Gale, 2013.
Neumann. “Triangle Fire.” In Encyclopedia of American Urban History, edited by David
Goldfield. Sage Publications, 2007.
Stein, Leon. 2010. The Triangle Fire. New York: Cornell University Press. Accessed October 3,
2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.
1911. LIVED AMID FLAMES, BUT NEARLY DROWNS; Hyman Meshel, First Person
Rescued from Ruins, Tells of His Fight for Life. The New York Times. Accessed October
1911. The Calamity. The New York Times. Accessed October 3, 2017.
1911. 141 MEN AND GIRLS DIE IN WAIST FACTORY FIRE; TRAPPED HIGH UP IN
WASHINGTON PLACE BUILDING; STREET STREWN WITH BODIES; PILES OF DEAD INSIDE; The Flames Spread with Deadly Rapidity Through Flimsy Material Used in the Factory. The New York Times. Accessed October 3, 2017.
- Lal, Jayati. “Sweatshops.” In Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, edited by Patrick L. Mason. 2nd ed. Gale, 2013.
- Neumann. “Triangle Fire.” In Encyclopedia of American Urban History, edited by David
Goldfield. Sage Publications, 2007.
- Stein, Leon. 2010. The Triangle Fire. New York: Cornell University Press. Accessed October 3,
2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.
- 1911. LIVED AMID FLAMES, BUT NEARLY DROWNS; Hyman Meshel, First Person Rescued from Ruins, Tells of His Fight for Life. The New York Times. Accessed October 3, 2017.
- 1911. The Calamity. The New York Times. Accessed October 3, 2017.
- 1911. 141 MEN AND GIRLS DIE IN WAIST FACTORY FIRE; TRAPPED HIGH UP IN WASHINGTON PLACE BUILDING; STREET STREWN WITH BODIES; PILES OF DEAD INSIDE; The Flames Spread with Deadly Rapidity Through Flimsy Material Used in the Factory. The New York Times. Accessed October 3, 2017.
- “Aftermath.” U.S. Department of Labor – Aftermath, www.dol.gov/shirtwaist/aftermath.htm.