It’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t government regulations to protect workers’ safety. But 100 years ago, those are the conditions that existed. As that is way it always had been, no one had any reason to question it. However, that all changed on the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
What is a shirtwaist? It’s a type of blouse. It became popular when women, especially working women, began wearing skirts and blouses as an alternative to dresses.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Co.’s factory was located in the upper floors of a Manhattan high-rise. Only one elevator was in working order and it was down a narrow hallway. The door to the outside was locked while another door only opened one way. The fire escape was narrow.
Its employees were mainly immigrant girls, some as young as 14, who spoke no English.
The Day of the Fire
On March, 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the factory. It was a small fire that easily could have been put out, but the fire hose was in poor condition and didn’t work. Practically everything in the factory was flammable and the fire spread quickly.
A few dozen employees escaped using the elevator, but eventually the elevator stopped working. Others escaped to the roof and were able to move to other buildings.
Those stuck on the same floor as the fire needed to find a way out. Employees jumped down the elevator shaft and out of windows. Those who made it down the stairwell died because the door was locked.
The fire department was no help. Its ladders were too small and its nets tore. The fire escape collapsed.
The fire lasted a mere 18 minutes but killed 146. Six bodies remained unidentified for 100 years.
The factory’s owners had problems with fires twice before. In both cases, it was arson to collect insurance money. They refused to install sprinklers.
The owners also had forbade their employees from joining a trade union and paid them a very low wage.
The owners were charged with manslaughter, but a grand jury did not indict them. A civil trial later found them guilty of wrongful death.
New Safety Regulations
If anything good could come from such a tragedy, it’s the fire prevention law New York City passed later that year.
Other good came of the fire including:
- The formation of public safety committees.
- The formation of the American Society of Safety Engineers.
- States, starting with New York, began enacting fire-prevention laws requiring employers to equip their buildings with alarms, sprinklers, fire extinguishers and fire exits.
- Laws began being enacted to improve work conditions and to limit work hours for women and children.
Tragedies like this make you shake your head and wonder why people have to die for changes to occur.
Had you known about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire before today? What do you feel is its lasting legacy? Leave your comments below.
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