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The Triangle Waist Co. Fire
Brian Trumbore
President/Editor, StocksandNews.com

100 years ago, a significant tragedy occurred in New York City, the Triangle Waist Co. fire, which in terms of the American labor movement and workers’ safety led to some positive change.

Back in 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was formed; though sweatshops continued to flourish in the big cities, particularly New York.  Then in September 1909, 200 women tried to join the ILGWU and were fired.  This led to a strike and workers at another large factory joined in, but the owners hired thugs to break it up and the laborers (mostly women) were beaten.  The police then arrested the victims.  Soon the abuses brought about a workers revolt of sorts and in November of that year, 20,000 were on strike, the largest labor action by women ever staged in the United States.  Eventually, they won better wages and hours and the right to form a union (this was about more than just the ILGWU).

But actual working conditions still largely depended on the individual shop owners and on the corner of Green Street and Washington Place in New York City was a 10-story building that contained the Triangle Waist Co., a sweatshop employing 750 workers on the top 3 stories, 650 of whom were women.

Triangle manufactured shirtwaists, tailored blouses, on a piecework basis.  On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at about 4:40 PM fire broke out just 5 minutes before the workers would have been sent home.  The work areas were full of flammable materials, as you can imagine, but the building was fireproof.  There was only one internal fire escape (nothing external), however, and the exit door was blocked by the owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, in order to prevent theft.  City inspectors had warned Harris and Blanck about the situation, but the inspectors never followed up with enforcement.

The fire itself lasted but 30 minutes. The building was, indeed, fireproof.   Afterwards, the structure hardly showed any signs that a fire had taken place.  Yet 146, at least 125 of them girls between the ages of 16 and 23, died.

I was reading an account from the 3/26/1911 edition of the New York Times and it’s so gruesome that I don’t even want to relate all of what was reported from the scene.  Most of the victims suffocated, but 46 jumped to their death [Ed. a new HBO documentary on the fire says 90 jumped], even though the crowd below yelled, “Don’t jump!”  A man was seen gently handing girls onto a windowsill, “as if he were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity.”

Among the many tragic factors leading to this catastrophe was the fact that the tallest fire ladders only reached to the 6th floor, and then you had the case of Harris and Blanck, fleeing with their children and governess over the roofs.  The employees, though, didn’t know about this escape route and they were used to riding the two freight elevators, one of which was not in service when the fire broke out.

Needless to say, the fire at least galvanized the City of New York into action.  Back then, some 300,000 worked in lofts higher than the fire ladders could reach, for example, while inspectors were often paid off by the proprietors.  Fire Chief Crocker complained after the disaster of “the way in which the Manufacturers’ Association had (previously) called a meeting on Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employees in cases of fire.”

A commission led to an investigation of some 1,836 factories in 20 industries, which resulted in the passage of 56 bills, including a 54-hour work week for women and minors, safety codes, workers’ compensation and a ban on night factory work for women.  One of the sponsors of the legislation was a state senator by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the case of Harris and Blanck, however, they hired a crackerjack attorney, Max Steuer, who helped them beat a manslaughter charge.  Then when the two collected the insurance money, they stalled for years in court, before finally paying out the claimants to the tune of about $75 a life.  But Harris and Blanck weren’t finished.  In their new factory inspectors found the same old violations, including 6-foot piles of rubbish and blocked fire doors.

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Just a few other labor tidbits:

1867: The 8-hour work day was first enacted as a main goal of labor unions in the states of Illinois, New York and Missouri, but it was seldom enforced.

1917: Despite reforms, there were still some 11,338 fatal manufacturing accidents in America and, incredibly, non-fatal injuries that year numbered 1,363,000.

1926: Henry Ford was the first to adopt the 40-hour work week as a way of boosting a then ailing auto industry.  America’s industrial titans were shocked, but the proposal was warmly received by the AFL* because it was seen as a way to check overproduction, while limiting unemployment.

*Fyi…the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations didn’t merge until 1955.

Sources:

“The American Century,” Harold Evans
“The New York Times Century of Business,” Floyd Norris and Christine Bockelmann
“The Growth of the American Republic,” Morison, Commager, Leuchtenburg
“America: A Narrative History,” David Shi and George Brown Tindall
“The “Encyclopedia of American Facts,” edited by Gorton Carruth

Wall Street History returns in two weeks.

Brian Trumbore

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