Jewish Women on the Map - Site of the Triangle Waist Company fire
The Triangle Waist Factory was located on the top three floors of the Asch Building on Washington Place. More than 500 workers labored here long hours, six days a week. Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started on the eighth floor. Flames soon engulfed the factory. Within 45 minutes, 146 workers, more than half of them Jewish women, were dead.
On March 25th, as they did six days a week, the employees of the Triangle Waist Company would begin arriving at the Asch Building around 8:00 a.m. lest their pay be docked for missing the start of the workday at 9:00 a.m. They would line up and wait at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street for the freight elevators that would take them to the space rented by the Triangle Company on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors.
By the time of the fire, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were already known as the "Shirtwaist Kings." These two Russian Jews had arrived in New York in the early 1890s. They formed a partnership that quickly became one of the most successful in the garment industry. In 1901, the year the Asch Building was built, the Triangle Company signed a lease for the 9th floor. By 1909 the factory had expanded to the 8th and 10th floors. In 1911, the Triangle Waist Co. was the largest factory of its type in New York, turning out 2,000 shirtwaists per day.
Blanck and Harris were known for their disregard of workers' rights. The owners refused to acknowledge the union and violated existing laws, which offered minimal protection to workers. Triangle employees had to buy their own materials, including needles and thread, pay for any mistakes they made, could not talk or sing during the work day, and suffered the humiliation of monitored bathroom breaks.
The women working at the Triangle Factory at the time of the 1911 fire were mainly young immigrants from Italy and the shtetls of Eastern Europe. They had survived pogroms and poverty, made the journey to America (often alone), and were struggling to establish themselves in a new land, while saving to support and bring over family members. They knew that conditions at the Triangle Factory were unpleasant, even dangerous, but that a job there was also desirable: the factory was almost always busy, which meant steady pay.
Fires were common in the garment industry, in part because, due to insurance policies, they provided a way for owners to get rid of excess inventory and keep pace with changing fashions without suffering a financial loss. By 1911, there had already been numerous small fires at the Triangle factory.
In late March, the six-week busy season was almost over. Dresses with lace and embroidered waists made with a sheer, light cotton fabric called "lawn" were a fashion rage that year. To keep up with demand for this popular style, workers at the Triangle were putting in nine-hour days on weekdays and seven hours on Saturday.
The catastrophic fire began near closing time. The fire marshal would determine that, despite the factory's ban on smoking, a cigarette tossed in a scrap bin on the 8th floor started the fire. The flammable material all around the shop—imagine the cotton scraps in the bin, the tissue paper patterns on the tables, the half-finished blouses, the cotton fibers in the air—made it inevitable that the fire would spread rapidly. There were fire pails scattered about, but they were of little help.
About 180 people were working on the 8th floor. Some tried to escape through the regular exit on the Greene Street side of the building. At the end of a normal day, workers were funneled into a line at this door so that guards could search their bags for a piece of lace, scrap of fabric, or a blouse that might be hidden there. Other workers tried to escape through the Washington Street door only to find that it was locked. Precious minutes passed before anyone on the 9th floor realized what was happening one flight below, making the fire all the more deadly. Meanwhile, workers on the 8th floor alerted the bosses in their offices on the 10th floor—Blanck and Harris were able to escape to the roof unharmed.
Some workers managed to escape by using the elevators until they stopped working. Others climbed onto the rickety fire escape. When terrified workers approached the stairway on the Washington Street side, they found themselves jammed against doors that were designed to swing inward. A machinist finally found a key and opened the doors, allowing some workers to flee down the stairs.
Fire engines left the station less than two minutes after the alarm was sounded. As they approached the building, they saw flames in all the windows on the 8th floor and workers struggling to escape. Neither their ladders nor their hoses reached past the 6th floor, which meant they were about 30 feet too short to help the trapped workers.
The fire was so intense and spread so quickly that within five minutes, desperate workers began jumping. The firemen set up their nets, but no jumpers survived. The nets were simply too weak to sustain bodies failing from such height.
The conflagration was over within half an hour. By 5:15 p.m., the fire was out on all three floors. The fire itself did not last long but its impact would be felt for decades. Many New Yorkers witnessed the horrific event firsthand, including Frances Perkins, F.D.R's future Secretary of Labor (and the first woman to hold such a position), who was having tea nearby. She would later say that what she saw that day marked the beginning of her career as a labor reformer.
Only five days after the fire, Blanck and Harris reopened for business in a different building on University Place. They would remain in business together for several more years and never changed their ways. The new factory was not fireproof, nor did it have fire escapes or adequate exits.
Prosecutors could not prove that Blanck and Harris had intentionally locked the doors of the Asch building. Their criminal trial for manslaughter ended with an acquittal. They even received a $200,000 insurance settlement. In 1914, Blanck and Harris settled 23 individual civil suits by paying each of the families a week's pay, or $75 per life lost. The Asch building continued to operate as a factory until 1929 when its new owner donated it to NYU. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1991.