What you may not know about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire

A stripped shirt gathered at the waist.
Shirtwaist made by Fisk, Clark & Flagg, about 1910.
Shirtwaists, tailored blouses of the 1890s and early 1900s, became especially popular with working-class women because, unlike a full dress, they were easy to clean and offered freedom of movement.

One of the most infamous tragedies in American manufacturing history is the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. You may recall the story—how a blaze in a New York City sweatshop resulted in the fiery death of 146 people, mostly immigrant women in their teens and 20s. When workers found exit doors locked, jammed narrow staircases, and a fire escape collapsed, they resorted to jumping from the 10-story building to a gruesome death.

However, what happened at the Triangle factory is more than an industrial disaster story; it has become a touchstone, and often a critique, of capitalism in the United States. As an online exhibit from Cornell University's Kheel Center explains, "The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement. The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed."

As I reflect on the episode, many thoughts swirl through my mind. But two big questions rise to the surface: Are the details of the story accurately remembered? And what can we still learn from the incident today? Let us run down the facts.

An ad where a man shows off his jacket and text talks about the dangerous of sweatshops.
Anti-sweatshop advertisement, Saturday Evening Post, 1902.
Sweatshops were common in the early New York garment industry. An 1895 definition described a sweatshop operator as an "…employer who underpays and overworks his employees, especially a contractor for piecework in the tailoring trade." This work often took place in small, dank tenement apartments.

Was Triangle a sweatshop run by greedy owners?

Sweatshops were (and continue to be) a huge problem in the hypercompetitive garment industry. The Triangle Waist Company was not, however, a sweatshop by the standards of 1911. It was a modern factory for its time, occupying about 27,000 square feet on three floors in a brightly lit 10-year-old building, and employing about 500 workers. Of course, even work in a legitimate factory can be monotonous, grueling, dangerous, and poorly paid.

Most of the workers killed in the Triangle factory fire were women in their late teens or early 20s. The youngest were two14-year-old girls. It was not unusual in 1911 for girls that young to work, and even today 14-year-olds—and even preteens—can legally perform paid manual labor in the United States under certain conditions.

While calling the Triangle Waist Company owners 'greedy' was not a perfect assessment, its true that they were not saints. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were hard-driving entrepreneurs who, like many other business owners, cut corners as they relentlessly pushed to grow their enterprise.

A black singer sewing machine
Singer sewing machine, about 1920.
Triangle had modern well-maintained equipment, including hundreds of belt-driven sewing machines mounted on long tables and run from floor-mounted shafts.

What caused the fire?

Attributing the cause of the fire to negligence on the part of the owners fit the media narrative of the time. That understanding continues today. Period newspapers reported several different causes of the fire, including poorly maintained equipment. Court testimony attributed the source of the blaze to a fabric scrap bin, which led to a fire that spread explosively—fed by all the lightweight cotton fabric (and material dust) in the factory. Despite rules forbidding smoking, the fire was probably ignited by a discarded cigarette or cigar. Few women smoked in 1911 so the culprit was likely one of the cutters (a strictly male job).

Like many other garment shops, Triangle had experienced fires that were quickly extinguished with water from pre-filled buckets that hung on the walls. Neither the owners, nor the landlord, invested in extra firefighting systems like sprinklers. While the contents of the factory were highly combustible, the building itself was considered fireproof (and survived the fire without structural damage). Triangle dealt with fire hazards to their equipment and inventory by buying insurance. Worker safety in this period was not the first concern.

A red banner with a Union name on it.
Union banner, about 1910. 
Around 1910 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) began to gain traction in their effort to organize women and girls, such as those who worked at the Triangle factory. Radical labor leaders like Clara Lemlich displaced many of the conservative male unionists and pushed for socialism and a more equitable division of profits.

Were workers demanding safer conditions?        

In the early 1900s, workers, banding together in unions to gain bargaining power with the owners, struggled to create lasting organizations. Most of the garment workers were poor immigrants barely scraping by. Putting food on the table and sending money to families in their home countries took precedence over paying union dues. Harder yet, the police and politicians sided with owners and were more likely to jail strikers than help them.

Despite the odds, Triangle workers went on strike in late 1909. The walkout expanded, becoming the Uprising of 20,000—a citywide strike of predominantly women shirtwaist workers. The workers pressed for immediate needs—more money, a 52-hour work week, and a better way for dealing with the unemployment that came with seasonal apparel change. The workers directed less pressure at gaining safer shops.

Triangle owner Blanck and Harris were extremely anti-union. They eventually gave in to pay raises, but would not make the factory a "closed shop" that would employ only union members. 

A newspaper front page
The (New York)World front page, 1911. Media coverage of the Triangle factory fire was extensive.  Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper with its sensational "yellow" journalism stories led the way. Vivid reports of women hurling themselves from the building to certain death were widely reported. The outpouring of interest helped propel new laws and regulations. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Had the owners followed the law, would lives have been spared?    

The Triangle factory fire was truly horrific, but few laws and regulations were broken. Accused of locking the secondary exits (in order to stop employee theft), Blanck and Harris were tried for manslaughter but acquitted. 

That New York's building codes were outdated, and its high-rise buildings were finding new (and sometimes unsafe) uses, was a major cause of the loss of life. Instead of tall buildings warehousing dry goods with just a few clerks inside, as in the past, buildings were now housing factories with hundreds of workers. What few building codes existed were woefully inadequate and under-enforced. Outrage over the fire motivated politicians in New York and around the country to pass new laws better regulating and safeguarding human life in the workplace. 

The media coverage of the Triangle factory fire also marked the rise of progressive reformers and a turning point in the politics of New York's democratic political machine, Tammany Hall. The political machine woke up to the needs, and increasing power, of Jewish and Italian working-class immigrants. Affluent reformers such as Frances Perkins, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, and Anne Morgan also pushed for change. While politicians still looked out for the interests of moneyed elite, the stage was being set for the rise of labor unions and the coming of the New Deal.

A golden cash register
Cash register from Marshall Field's, 1914. At the turn of the century a shopping revolution swept the nation as consumers flocked to downtown palace department stores, attracted by a wide selection of goods sold at inexpensive prices in luxurious environments.

Epilogue

Today most Americans know a mostly accurate, if jumbled, account of the Triangle Waist Company factory fire, but few realize the role of consumers in the death of the 146 workers. The women in the factory made ready-to-wear clothing, the shirtwaists that young women in offices and factories wanted to wear. Their labor, and low wages, made fashionable clothing affordable. Seeking efficiency, manufacturers applied mass production techniques in increasingly large garment shops. Entrepreneurs prospered, and even working-class people could afford to buy stylish clothing. When tragedy struck (as happens today), some blamed manufacturers, some pointed to workers, and others criticized government. 

In a paradox of action, Americans pushed for both lower prices and safer, better-regulated factories, throughout the 1900s. Today attitudes have largely changed. While workplace tragedies like the Imperial Food Co. fire of 1991 in North Carolina and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010 in West Virginia have taken the lives of many, the desire for regulation and enforcement has abated. The pressure for low prices, however, remains intense.

Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition.