In Blanck and Harris named their business the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, moving into an ideal location just a year later, a building named for the developer Joseph Asch. The owners leased the ninth floor of the building which was a little more than nine thousand square feet. They outfitted the space with machines and set to manufacturing their products.
By , the business leased the eighth and tenth floors of the Ashe building, employing hundreds of workers. As the factory expanded, Blanck and Harris felt vulnerable to union organizers who felt that the workers were treated poorly. The owners felt that the best defense against union infiltration was to lock the workers in. This proved to be a devastating decision when the fire broke out in As eyewitness to the horrific ordeal William G. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.
Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if of us are burned to death. Triangle, unlike other disasters, became a rallying cry for political change. Unlike many other industrial countries, socialism never gained a dominant hold in the United States, and the struggle between labor and management continues apace.
Sweatshops were common in the early New York garment industry.
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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 What is rarely told and makes the story far worse is Triangle was considered a modern factory for its time. It was a leader in the industry, not a rogue operation. It occupied about 27, square feet on three floors in a brightly lit, ten-year-old building, and employed about workers. Triangle had modern, well-maintained equipment, including hundreds of belt-driven sewing machines mounted on long tables that ran from floor-mounted shafts.
What the Triangle loft spaces lacked, however, was a fire-protection sprinkler system. Without laws requiring their existence, few owners put them into their factories. Fire drills, common today, were rarely practiced in Even in a legitimate factory, work was often monotonous, grueling, dangerous and poorly paid. Most of the workers killed in the fire were women in their late teens or early 20s.
The youngest were two year-old girls. It was not unusual in for girls that young to work, and even today, year-olds and even preteens can legally perform paid manual labor in the United States under certain conditions. The United States tolerates child labor to a greater extent than many other countries. Labor leaders like Clara Lemlich displaced many of the conservative male unionists and pushed for socialist policies, including a more equitable division of profits.
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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. Like many other garment shops, Triangle had experienced fires previously that were quickly extinguished with water from pre-filled buckets that hung on the walls.
Traces of an American Tragedy: Inside the Former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Blanck and Harris dealt with fire hazards to their equipment and inventory by buying insurance, and the building itself was considered fireproof and survived the fire without structural damage. Workplace safety, however, was not a priority for the owners. Sadly, the fire was probably ignited by a discarded cigarette or cigar. Despite rules forbidding employees from smoking, the practice was fairly common for men.
Few women smoked in , so the culprit was likely one of the cutters a strictly male job. The Triangle factory fire gave rise to progressive reformers call for greater regulation and helped change attitudes of New York's Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall. The politicians woke up to the needs, and increasing power, of Jewish and Italian working-class immigrants.
While politicians still looked out for the interests of the moneyed elite, the stage was being set for the rise of labor unions and the coming of the New Deal. The outrage of Triangle fueled a widespread movement. In the early s, workers, banding together in unions to gain bargaining power with the owners, struggled to create lasting organizations.
Most of the garment workers were impoverished immigrants barely scraping by.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Centennial | III
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 The walkout expanded, becoming the Uprising of 20,—a citywide strike of predominantly women shirtwaist workers. The workers pressed for immediate needs—more money, a hour work week, and a better way for dealing with the unemployment that came with seasonal apparel change—over more long-term goals like workplace safety.
They eventually gave in to pay raises, but would not make their factory a "closed shop" that would employ only union members. The Triangle factory fire was truly horrific, but few laws and regulations were actually broken. Blanck and Harris were accused of locking the secondary exits in order to stop employee theft , and were tried for manslaughter. Outdated building codes in New York City and minimal inspections allowed business owners to use high-rise buildings in new and sometimes unsafe ways.
In the past, tall buildings warehoused dry goods with just a few clerks working inside. Now, these buildings were housing factories with hundreds of workers. What few building codes existed were woefully inadequate and under-enforced. Learn about other kinds of individual-made memorials that pay tribute to victims of bicycle and motor vehicle accidents , or to anyone who has died, like cemetery decorations, murals or historical markers or statues. Take a walking tour of your city or town, photographing memorials to individuals.
What is a day laborer? How does a union shop differ from a non-union shop? Discuss your answers in small groups, each of which will do additional research to present the needs and realities of one of the groups mentioned in the video. As each group gives its presentation, allow other groups to respond, explaining how it will be affected if the presenting group gets what it wants, how the two groups can work together to improve their situations, and, if applicable, how consumers will be affected.
What is a sweatshop? Write a proposal for how clothing companies, the factories they hire to make their clothes, workers, political leaders and clothing buyers can work to bring about more fair and ethical treatment for workers. United for Workers: What are the pros and cons of labor unions? Write a researched essay, create a timeline, or stage a debate that explains the role unions have played in American life in the past — and their role today. The Fire on Film: Watch the new HBO documentary , paying attention to the stories told by the descendants of people who experienced the fire.
Write a review of the documentary that addresses what you think is the value of such stories. Then film your own family members talking about their experiences with work and work-related hardship. Include family photographs if possible. Edit the films together to make a class documentary, and screen it for the school community.
At the screening, find a way to honor the families and their experiences. Drawing on Politics: Look at the editorial cartoons about the fire , and then sketch your own political cartoons commenting on an issue you care passionately about.
In This Section
How did the photographs help people understand what had happened and move them to action? Compare the coverage of the fire with that of a contemporary large-scale news event. Write an essay on one of the following questions: What do you notice about how print journalism has changed? Does news coverage significantly affect public opinion and policy making today?