Remembering the Triangle Fire


David Lee McMullen is an historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He is the author of Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson, the biography of the first woman elected to a national leadership position in an American textile union.

March 25, 2011 marks the one hundredth anniversary of what is perhaps the most infamous industrial disaster in the history of the United States—the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  On that day, 146 workers, mostly young women, some as young as fifteen, died as a result of a fire which could have been prevented.  Today, that fire provides a tragic reminder of what happens when the greed of employers is afforded more importance than the safety and welfare of their workers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the top three stories of a ten-story building in Manhattan’s garment district (the building is still standing off of Washington Square Park).  There, approximately five hundred workers, mostly Jewish immigrants, worked fifty-two hours a week for weekly wages that ranged from $3 to $14.  Even by early twentieth-century standards, the factory was courting disaster.  Despite the availability of modern fire safety measures—including automatic sprinklers, fire retardant walls, doors and stairs, and periodic fire drills—none were in use because employers said they were too expensive.

How the fire began is unknown.  Some speculated that it started in a bin of scrap cotton material, perhaps from a cigarette.  Highly flammable, the cotton scraps exploded and the fire spread rapidly across the cutting room floor, which occupied most of the eighth floor.  In fact, it spread so rapidly that the bodies of some of the workers were found still bending over their sewing machines.

Of the two internal stairwells, one was blocked by fire and the other was locked by the owners.  Some workers were able to make their way through the smoke to a poorly constructed outside fire escape, but they died when it collapsed, impaling several workers on twisted pieces of iron.  More than sixty women, terrified by the smoke and flames with their hair and dresses on fire, jumped to their death on the sidewalks below.  Another fifty women, those afraid to jump, were later found huddled together in a cloak room, their faces turned toward a tiny window, burned to death.

The factory owners escaped unharmed.  Tried for manslaughter, they were acquitted and ultimately collected a large insurance settlement.  David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, noted that the factory owners “were so-called rotten risks, in insurance parlance, because they kept having fires.”  He also observed that at the time of the fire the owners were paying high premiums for insurance coverage that was almost twice the value of the factory.  Arson was, after all, a common method of balancing the books and assuring a profit.

The fire sparked reform in workplace safety and inspired activists to take on the cause of the workers, most notably Frances Perkins, America’s first female cabinet member, who as secretary of labor played a key role in the creation of Social Security, unemployment compensation and federal laws concerning child labor and a minimum wage.

Sadly, the Triangle fire is not unique in American history.   In 1991, twenty-five people died in a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina.  Just like the Triangle workers, the poor men and women working long hours at an unpleasant job for minimal pay, found the exit doors locked when they sought to escape the smoke and flames.  After the fire, footprints were found on the locked doors, left by panicking workers who had tried desperately, but in vain, to kick down the door.

Today, however, there is growing evidence that the lessons of the Triangle fire have been forgotten.  The rights of workers—public and private, union and non-union—are under attack.  Employers, business groups and their political servants want to repeal government regulations designed to protect workers.  Where regulations cannot be eliminated, they seek to cut government funding, thus reducing oversight and enforcement.  These employer groups say such changes are needed to create jobs in America, but aren’t these the same people who have been responsible for sending American jobs to other parts of the world for several decades?

Too many employers in this country continue to value profit over the safety and welfare of their workers—particularly those workers at the lowest economic levels who work the longest hours for the least amount of compensation.  Business interests disseminate disinformation designed to frighten average Americans into believing that their neighbors are responsible for America’s economic problems.  It is an old strategy that has long been used by the rich to pit one worker against another, dividing Americans by race, gender, ethnicity and religion. 

As one New York City newspaper noted after the fire and the trial where the Triangle owners were acquitted, “Capital can commit no crime when it is in pursuit of profits.”  Sadly, that observation seems to remain true a hundred years later.

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