Triangle shirtwaist factory fire photo essay
Uncovering the History of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
The author behind the authoritative retelling of the 1911 fire describes how he researched the tragedy that killed 146 people
On March 25, 1911, a pleasant springtime afternoon, a fire broke out in a garment factory near Washington Square in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story tower was full of flames. Onlookers, drawn by the column of smoke and the clamor of converging fire wagons, watched helplessly and in horror as dozens of workers screamed from the ninth-floor windows. They were trapped by flames, a collapsed fire escape and a locked door. Firefighters frantically cranked a rescue ladder, which rose slowly skyward—then stopped at the sixth floor, fully extended. Pressed by the advancing blaze, workers began leaping and tumbling to their deaths on the sidewalk. Other workers perished in the flames, still others plunged into an open elevator shaft, while behind the factory two dozen fell from the flimsy fire escape. In all, 146 workers, most of them immigrant young women and girls, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. For 90 years it stood as New York’s deadliest workplace disaster.
This story—and the fire’s impact on the politics of New York and the nation—took hold of me in the early 1990s. I had moved to the Village as a reporter for the Miami Herald, and one day, while exploring the neighborhood, I was surprised to find the factory tower still standing at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. In the years that followed, I often passed that corner and always paused to look up at those ninth-floor windows.
My curiosity led me to a spare and forceful book, The Triangle Fire. Written by a labor organizer named Leon Stein and published in 1962, the book was both harrowing and somewhat frustrating. Stein had interviewed dozens of survivors, tracked down a number of original records and rendered the story in taut prose. But many of the questions that most interested me were taken for granted by Stein, who spent his career in the New York garment industry, a world stamped by the Triangle tragedy. I was hungry for more about the context and characters surrounding this event, which influenced such momentous figures as the progressive New York governor Alfred E. Smith, the New Deal architect Senator Robert F. Wagner and the pioneering Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. But no full-length study of the fire and its impact on politics had been written in the decades after Stein’s book.
So I proposed to write my own.
How rash! But my folly dawned on me slowly—and only after I had blown a substantial stack of my publisher’s advance on diapers, formula and preschool tuition. I discovered that virtually all the key documents concerning the Triangle fire had been lost or destroyed. Records of the fire marshal’s investigation: long gone. Files of the coroner’s special jury: vanished.
Worst of all, I couldn’t find the official transcript of the trial of Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the Triangle factory owners, who had been charged with manslaughter on the theory that their negligence caused the workers’ deaths. Their three-week trial in December 1911 collected sworn testimony from more than 150 witnesses who were questioned while details of the disaster were still relatively fresh in their minds. Dozens of survivors, including Harris and Blanck themselves, recounted their narrow escapes, while firefighters, police officers and building engineers added details of the factory layout and the fire’s awful progress. No other document could take me closer to that factory in the moments before and after the fire erupted.
I knew that a transcript had been prepared, because Stein had used it in his research: his notes were part of the labor history archive at the Kheel Center at Cornell University. Yet when I contacted the New York City archives, I was told that, well, the transcript—all 2,000-plus pages—seemed to have been lost. It apparently vanished, wouldn’t you know, during a project to preserve historic documents. Sometime around 1970, an archives official explained, New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice received a grant to transfer important court records to microfilm. Somewhere between the courthouse and the college, the Triangle record was lost forever.
Still, I figured there must be other copies, prepared for the prosecutor or the defense attorney. I inquired at other New York colleges and universities, at the New York Public Library, at various city museums and state archives. Coming up empty, I turned to the multitude of daily newspapers from 1911. Surely the sensational trial of Harris and Blanck must have been covered extensively, in front-page stories full of colorful details and verbatim testimony.
Nope. My heart sank as I fed rolls of microfilm into reading machines at the Library of Congress (having moved to Washington as a reporter for the Washington Post). There was next to nothing in the New York World, the American, the Herald, the Times, the Tribune, the Post. Only the most dramatic testimony and the verdict—not guilty—registered more than a few paragraphs stashed in the back pages.
My frustration turned to panic. Samuel Johnson famously declared that «no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,» and I have never been wealthy enough to test his theory. The money I had taken was now gone, even as the bills continued to arrive. I began to lose hope that I could actually make a book from the scraps and remnants I had been compiling.
Which was sad, because some of the scraps were fascinating. Virtually nothing had been known about the young women who worked and died in the Triangle factory, but I was finding whispers of their brief stories in old census records and city maps. The microfilmed record of a Socialist newspaper in New York, the Call, contained a haunting half page of photographs of Triangle fire victims, lent by their grieving families. The same newspaper fleshed out Harris and Blanck’s role in resisting efforts to unionize the garment factories.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished when a fire broke out in a garment factory in New York City. For 90 years it stood as New York’s deadliest workplace disaster. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
Such discoveries kept me plodding along, despite flagging hopes. One spring day in 2001, almost exactly 90 years after the fire, I turned my attention at the Library of Congress to the high-priced attorney Harris and Blanck hired to save them from prison. Max D. Steuer was among the most colorful figures in the peacock gallery of New York before World War I. An immigrant and former sweatshop worker, Steuer rose to the pinnacle of the New York bar, starring as courtroom magician in dramas ranging from celebrity sex scandals to securities frauds to the disputed wills of dysfunctional dynasties. He became known as «Million-Dollar Steuer» in the Hearst newspapers until he complained about it to one of his clients: William Randolph Hearst. The Triangle trial—specifically, Steuer’s cunning cross-examination of the star prosecution witness—was a key moment in his legendary career.
I found a sketch of Steuer’s life in the Dictionary of American Biography, published in the early 1960s. The entry ended with a list of sources printed in tiny type. One note caught my eye: «Collections of the records and briefs of cases in which Steuer appeared are in the N. Y. County Lawyers’ Assoc.» What records?
I looked up the NYCLA on the Internet and was pleased to find that it still existed. It had been founded early in the 20th century as an alternative to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which—in those days—was not open to women, blacks or Jews like Steuer. A few calls led me to Ralph Monaco, director of the NYCLA library, who seemed genuinely interested in my saga—and genuinely sorry to tell me he had no idea what records the Dictionary was talking about.
That was the low point.
Three days later, Monaco called back. He had posted a listserv message explaining my plight to the Law Librarians Association of Greater New York. One of his predecessors as director of the NYCLA library, Alison Alifano, saw the message and replied that a collection of Steuer’s records was somewhere in the library. She just was not sure where. Then a veteran library employee named Jose Rosario unearthed what appeared to be a transcript from the stacks.
I told Monaco I could be in New York the next day.
How about next week? he countered. Promptly at 9 the next Monday morning, I entered NYCLA’s downtown headquarters, an elegant Cass Gilbert landmark in the twin shadows of the World Trade Center towers. On Monaco’s desk, I finally laid eyes on my prize: two fat, antique, leather-bound tomes, labeled Vol. 1 and Vol. 3. Vol. 2 appeared to be missing, so Rosario and I went back to the stacks to hunt for it. He led me to a shelf of similar books, all from Steuer’s estate. Scanning the spines, I realized that he had commemorated his greatest trial victories by binding his carbon-copy transcripts in gold-lettered leather. Upon his death in 1940, he bequeathed these trophies to NYCLA. And as his fame had faded with the passing decades, they were relegated to storage and forgotten.
We never found the missing volume, but that hardly dampened my excitement as I turned the first of more than 1,300 pages of recovered history. For much of the next two weeks, I read slowly through the sometimes tangled testimony and typed thousands of words of notes and quotations into my laptop. Photocopying the volumes was out of the question—the cheap paper, nearly a century old, was crumbling between my fingers. In fact, I began to worry that Monaco would call a halt to my reading because the books were falling apart. So I sat at a table as far from the reference desk as I could get, and swept small drifts of paper crumbs into my briefcase to hide them.
Each morning, however, Monaco and his colleagues welcomed me back. And gradually I learned not only what it was like to endure the fire but also what it was like to work at the Triangle Waist Co. Notorious today as a classic sweatshop, the Triangle was a model of modern efficiency to its owners and employees. Indeed, as I came to understand the factory, the pace of daily work and the intricate relationships inside the large, family-run business, I could see how the factory’s scale and efficiency helped cause the tragedy. Specially designed bins held hundreds of pounds of scrap cotton and tissue paper at a time. In one of these bins, just before the quitting bell rang, a fire kindled. The supply of fuel turned the factory into what a fire captain called «a mass of traveling fire» within 15 minutes.
Some testimony was spellbinding, such as factory foreman Samuel Bernstein’s marathon account of his efforts to fight the fire and save the workers. Capt. Howard Ruch of the New York Fire Department told of his initial survey of the charred ninth floor. «I stepped on something that was soft,» he said, and only then realized he had reached a pile of bodies. Line by line, the transcript restored history to three dimensions and provided a Rosetta stone for understanding Leon Stein’s notes from the lost volume of testimony.
Through the cooperation of NYCLA and Cornell, my experience of reading the lost transcripts is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. In 2004, Kheel Center director Richard Strassberg carried the Steuer volumes to the Ithaca campus, where each page was scanned and digitized. Because the quality of the originals was so poor, the process captured only about 40 percent of the text. So Patricia Leary of the Kheel Center painstakingly corrected every page.
Last autumn, after more than a year of effort, the Kheel Center posted the entire text on its Triangle fire Web site: ilr. cornell. edu/trianglefire. The site, which receives some six million visitors each year, is a model for archivists who want to make their records available to students and researchers. By June, portions of the recovered record had been downloaded more than 1,100 times, Strassberg reports, including nearly 400 complete copies.
The Triangle fire catalyzed reforms in New York that spread nationwide—outward-swinging exit doors and sprinklers in high-rise buildings, for example. These reforms in turn fueled the careers of people like Smith and Wagner and Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Half a century after the fire, she still pointed to that day as the birth of the New Deal. Today, the memory of the fire moves reformers to wonder why some workers in the United States—and many more abroad—still toil in needlessly dangerous conditions.
Those who experienced the horror firsthand could not have anticipated the impact. Nor could they have imagined that, someday—thanks to a lawyer’s vanity, a buried footnote, a diligent librarian and the power of technology—their long-silent voices could speak directly of their experiences to readers around the world.
David Von Drehle wrote Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burned, killing 145 workers. It is remembered as one of the most infamous incidents in American industrial history, as the deaths were largely preventable–most of the victims died as a result of neglected safety features and locked doors within the factory building. The tragedy brought widespread attention to the dangerous sweatshop conditions of factories, and led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of workers.
The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the Asch Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in Manhattan. It was a true sweatshop, employing young immigrant women who worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. Nearly all the workers were teenaged girls who did not speak English, working 12 hours a day, every day. In 1911, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and the workers had to file down a long, narrow corridor in order to reach it. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent stealing and the other only opened inward. The fire escape was so narrow that it would have taken hours for all the workers to use it, even in the best of circumstances.
Did you know? Exactly 79 years to the day after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, another tragic fire occurred in New York City. The blaze, at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, killed 87 people, the most deadly fire in the city since 1911.
The danger of fire in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist was well-known, but high levels of corruption in both the garment industry and city government generally ensured that no useful precautions were taken to prevent fires. Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.
Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris’ notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.
On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. As the fire grew, panic ensued. The young workers tried to exit the building by the elevator but it could hold only 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips back and forth before it broke down amid the heat and flames. In a desperate attempt to escape the fire, the girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths. The girls who fled via the stairwells also met awful demises–when they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive.
Those workers who were on floors above the fire, including the owners, escaped to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. As firefighters arrived, they witnessed a horrible scene. The girls who did not make it to the stairwells or the elevator were trapped by the fire inside the factory and began to jump from the windows to escape it. The bodies of the jumpers fell on the fire hoses, making it difficult to begin fighting the fire. Also, the firefighters ladders reached only seven floors high and the fire was on the eighth floor. In one case, a life net was unfurled to catch jumpers, but three girls jumped at the same time, ripping the net. The nets turned out to be mostly ineffectual.
Within 18 minutes, it was all over. Forty-nine workers had burned to death or been suffocated by smoke, 36 were dead in the elevator shaft and 58 died from jumping to the sidewalks. With two more dying later from their injuries, a total of 145 people were killed by the fire. The workers union set up a march on April 5 on New York’s Fifth Avenue to protest the conditions that had led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.
Despite a good deal of evidence that the owners and management had been horribly negligent in the fire, a grand jury failed to indict them on manslaughter charges. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party. Both were crucial in preventing similar disasters in the future.
The Shirtwaist Factory Fire: 100 Years Later
On the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman answered a reader’s comment about the need to remember what happened that day.
Richard R. Palmer: March 25 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. (Perhaps you agree with me that after 100 years the public needs to be reminded that the gains made by the union movement did not come because of the benign choices of businesses owners and are capable of being reversed.)
Paul Solman: After interviewing the owners of a Chinese-staffed New York garment factory years ago, eavesdropping workers privately muttered derisively in their native language, saying how much less they earned than we’d been told, how much longer their hours were, how much worse their working conditions. (We learned this later when it turned out our cameraman had understood the Chinese.)
The anecdote is a timely reminder, union supporters would say, as today marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that took 146 immigrants’ lives in March of 1911, mostly the lives of East European Jews working in the surreally named “Asch Building” in Greenwich Village (Northeast corner of Washington Square Park). Many of the victims leaped from the top floors when they couldn’t get out.
Note that some viewers may find some of the images disturbing.
The factory was the city’s largest garment manufacturer, making “shirtwaist” blouses, with as many as 500 workers, working from 7:30 a. m. to as late as 9 p. m. during the busy season, six days a week, earning between $1 and $12 an hour. On average, wages seem to have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.00 to $3.50 an hour in today’s dollars, inflation-adjusted.
A grimly fascinating “oral history” of former worker Pauline Newman can be found at History Matters, including audio. Here’s an excerpt:
They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren’t allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people.
A 1909 strike at Triangle Shirtwaist, in which Ms. Newman had taken part, ended in failure. At the time of the fire, stairway doors in the 10-story building remained locked to prevent theft. The fire escape was defective. The owners, successful Jews who had emigrated to America only 20 years before the tragedy, escaped via the roof. They eventually received more than four times as much money from the insurance settlement as they paid out to the families of the dead.
Where does the following quote come from?
The common wages of labor depend…upon the contract usually made between [workers and owners], whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the [owners] to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower…wages.
It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must…have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The [owners], being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen…In all such disputes the [owner] can hold out much longer…could generally live a year or two…. Many workmen could not subsist a week…
[Owners] are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor.
The date? 1776. The source? Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” (For “owner,” he used the word “master.”)
That, in short, is the world of work before unions had any political power, any legal standing, any legitimacy worth a tinker’s dam.
No wonder that those sympathetic to the labor movement insist that unions, and only unions, swung England and America away from exploitation in the years 1776 to 1911, righted an egregious power imbalance by exercising political power, wound up creating an increasingly prosperous “middle class.”
By contrast, the unsympathetic argue that the pendulum has swung too far; that labor has long been in the catbird seat; that “workmen” have used political power to extort extravagant benefits and self-serving, costly work rules; that unions have hamstrung American competitiveness, American prosperity.
It will come as news to approximately zero percent of you readers, regardless of whose side you’re on, that America’s union movement is up against it. As for labor conditions, after improving steadily since the year “Wealth of Nations” and the Declaration of Independence both appeared in print, they too seem under threat, at least in today’s version of the shirtwaist business.
According to a Cornell report on the occasion of the great fire’s centennial, “recent studies conducted by the U. S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.”
Skeptics are likely to scoff; sympathizers, to point to the fire of 1911 and say: “It can happen here. And it did.”
(For an earlier take on the union issue, specifically with regard to pensions, see my from Feb. 2011, What Do Wisconsin Protests Say About Organized Labor?