Triangle Waist Factory fire
Approximately 500 workers were making ladies blouses at the Triangle Waist Company's factory near Washington Square in Lower Manhattan when fire broke out on March 25, 1911.
The 10-story building lacked adequate fire escapes, firefighting equipment was unable to reach the top floors, and—most tragically— doors had been locked to prevent unauthorized breaks from work. Some of the workers, unable to reach an exit, jumped from the windows in a futile effort to save themselves. The fire did its work in less than 40 minutes. By the time it was out, 146 died and many more were injured. Most of the dead were recent immigrant Jewish and Italian women between the ages of 16 and 23.
Just two years before, the Jewish owners of the Triangle Waist Company had been among the targets of the strike known as the "Uprising of the 20,000," which had sought union recognition through the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Although some firms agreed to settle with their workers, Triangle did not and remained an anti-union shop.
In the wake of the Triangle fire, the Jewish community and women leaders in the labor movement sprang into action. The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL), a cross-class coalition that worked as an ally of the ILGWU, organized a public meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2. There, Rose Schneiderman, one of the leaders of the 1909 strike, called upon all working people to take action. Three days later, several hundred thousand people turned out for a funeral procession for the seven unidentified victims of the fire.
Under pressure from the ILGWU, the WTUL, and others, New York State established a Committee on Safety in the wake of the fire. In addition, the state legislature set up a Factory Investigating Committee, which drafted legislation designed to increase protection of workers. The recommendations included automatic sprinkler systems and occupancy limits. Over 30 new labor and safety laws were passed in the three years after the fire.
Even as these regulations went into effect, the site of the Triangle fire remained a rallying point for labor organizing. Some survivors, galvanized by their experience, went on to lifetimes of labor activism. Frances Perkins, who witnessed the fire, later became Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt. She said that the Triangle fire was the beginning of the New Deal. The last survivor of the fire, Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, died in 2001 at age 107.
Learn more about the Triangle Waist Factory fire in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: This Week in History for November 22, 1909 "Clara Lemlich sparks Uprising of the 20,000"; "We Have Found You Wanting": Labor Activism and Communal Responsibility," Go & Learn: Primary Documents and Lesson Plans; List of resources on the Triangle fire.
To see the locations related to the fire, visit the online walking tour.
On the Jewesses with Attitude blog: Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Imagining the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, We have found you wanting, The new "Triangle Fire" film: What was missing, Discovering my grandmother's Triangle story, 100 years of coming together on the Lower East Side, The picnic that saved my grandmother's life, and The Top 11 Labor History Landmarks in New York City.
Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1409-1412; Dave von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (New York, 2003); www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/; Jacqueline Jones et al., Created Equal (New York, 2003).