The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Do you know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire? If you don’t, you have likely reaped the benefits in one way or another. According to an article by Dr. Howard Markel entitled, “How the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire transformed labor laws and protected workers’ health” on PBS.org, “on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, is a bronze plaque affixed to the Neo-Renaissance façade of the Brown Building—now part of New York University. The building, it says, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historical Landmark.” The plaque is in memory of the 146 people, at least 125 of them immigrant women and some as young as 15, who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 110 years ago.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory made shirtwaists, which were cotton blouses that required no corset or hoops. The demand for the Triangle shirtwaists among the growing number of working women was huge, and the foreman in the factory did everything they could to keep the women sewing for 13-hours a day, seven days a week for six dollars a week.
The “fireproof” Brown Building was constructed in 1901 of steel and iron. The Triangle firm was on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors, at the top of the building. The building was not a nice place to work as it had limited bathrooms, poor ventilation, dangerously dark stairwells, no overhead sprinklers, and only a single, poorly constructed fire escape. Due to the nature of the work at the Triangle Company, the workers were stationed close together and surrounded by flammable materials.
When the fire erupted, it spread quickly. Many workers could not find a way out and died from smoke inhalation or burned to death. Some jumped from the windows to avoid the fire. Others found the stairwell doors locked, which was a common practice at the time to avoid theft by workers. The poorly constructed fire escape quickly collapsed, dropping those on it to their deaths on the sidewalk.
The New York City Fire Department arrived quickly, but their ladders reached only as high as the 6th floor of the building, two entire floors below the fire. Those jumping also created a hazard for the rescue workers. The mounting dead, fifty of whom had jumped to avoid the fire, were covered in tarps and arranged in rows along the sidewalk by the city coroners for the newspaper photographers.
The Public’s Response and Workers’ Rights
Huge public outcry led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions. Ultimately, the New York State laws that came about quickly following the fire became federal laws during the New Deal. Much later, in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was created to ensure safe working conditions.
Markel, Dr. Howard. “How the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Transformed Labor Laws and Protected Workers’ Health.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 1 Apr. 2021, www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/how-the-triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire-transformed-labor-laws-and-protected-workers-health