It’s hard to imagine a time when government regulations didn’t protect workers’ safety. But a century ago, there were no regulations. No one had any reason to question why not. 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. They were mass produced and sold in stores. Because they weren’t custom-made garments, they were sold at very low prices.
Low prices meant low wages for workers, and the owners forbade their employees to join a trade union. Working conditions were uncomfortable. The sewing machines were so close together, there was barely room between aisles.
To make matters worse, the shirtwaist was beginning to lose its popularity, and companies were finding it increasingly difficult to compete.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Co.’s factory was located in the upper floors of a Manhattan high-rise located at Washington Place and Greene Street. Its employees were mainly immigrant girls, some as young as 14, who spoke little or no English.
The door to the outside was locked to prevent employee theft while another door only opened in one direction. The building’s fire escape was inside the building, and the only elevator in working order was located down a narrow hallway.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
On March 25, 1911, minutes before the end of the workday, 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 neighboring buildings.
People stuck on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors needed to find a way out. Those who made it down the stairwell could not open the locked door. Thirty employees jumped down the elevator shaft and approximately 100 employees jumped out the windows, a 100 foot drop.
The fire department responded quickly but was no help. Its ladders were too short and its nets tore. Bodies on the sidewalk also prevented the firemen from getting as close to the building as they wanted.
“A heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour,” the New York Times said. “The firemen were too busy dealing with the fire to pay any attention to people whom they supposed beyond their aid.
“Thousands of people, who had crushed in from Broadway and Washington Square and were screaming with horror at what they saw…,” the Times said.
The fire lasted a mere 18 minutes but killed 146.
Bodies were so chard or mangled that they were identified by their teeth or shoes. 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 building had experienced four recent fires,” the Times said, “and had been reported by the Fire Department to the Building Department as unsafe, on account of the insufficiency of exits.”
The building was classed as fireproof and survived March 25 intact. The shirtwaists and fabric, on the other hand, burned quickly.
Triangle Shirtwaist’s 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 were enacted to improve work conditions and to limit work hours for women and children.
“[Fire] Chief Croker said it was an outrage,” the Times said. “He spoke bitterly about the way in which the Manufacturers’ Association had called a meeting in Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employees in case of fire.”
“‘Look around everywhere,’ he said, ‘nowhere will you find fire escapes. They say they don’t look slightly…. I have been advocating and agitating that more fire escapes be put on factory buildings similar to this. The large loss of life is due to this neglect.'”
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Updated: 15 October 2020
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