Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
"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 146 of us are burned to death. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves, and the only way is through a strong working-class movement."
These are the sobering words of labor activist Rose Schneiderman, a young garment worker and organizer for the New York Women's Trade Union League, delivered at a memorial meeting for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire -- the worst factory fire in the history of New York City -- that occurred 97 years ago today.
It was on March 25, 1911 that approximately 500 workers were sewing shirtwaists at the Jewish owned Triangle Shirtwaist Company's sweatshop near Washington Square in Manhattan when a fire broke out and took the lives of 146 workers, many of whom were Jewish and Italian immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 23. The building lacked adequate fire escapes, firefighting equipment was unable to reach the top floors, and -- most tragically -- exit doors had been locked to prevent unauthorized work breaks. Some women, unable to reach an exit, jumped from ninth- and tenth-floor windows in a vain effort to save themselves. The fire did its work within twenty minutes.
Outraged by the terrible working conditions that had contributed to the blaze, members of the Jewish community and leading women in the labor movement -- galvanized by the leadership of Rose Schneiderman -- sprang into action to prompt positive changes in workplace safety, worker's compensation, and labor rights. The tragedy continues to be memorialized today and serves as a rallying point for labor movement activists nationwide.
Check out Cornell University's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire online exhibit and learn more about the tragedy in This Day in History.