The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The following is an essay I wrote for my history class that I was pretty happy with.  Some of the lessons learned from the fire I discuss are still relevant today as reminders to those (Republicans… cough…cough) who claim government regulation is useless red tape.

The Triangle Fire: A Tragic Catalyst for Change

Today, many Americans might dislike their jobs, but it’s hard to believe that anyone would compare them to slave labor or say that they feel unsafe outside of normal, everyday risks. The states require employers to pay their employees at least the Federal minimum wage, many pay more, and all are required to provide sanitary working conditions as well as follow safety standards set by the government.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  The road to the working environment that many of us are privileged enough to have has been earned by those before us who fought a hard battle for workers rights, and it is a road that has been paved in blood, sweat, and tears.  The Triangle fire is glaring proof of the terrible life that many American laborers had to live with and they had no outlet to voice their objections.  Wealthy businessmen ruled the growing industrialized nation that America was becoming and they basically hand-picked the politicians that were responsible for running our government.  It was a dark time for a majority of Americans, and it didn’t seem like it was going to change; that is, of course, until one terrible event that claimed 146 lives.  The fire that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was tragically fatal, however it served as a catalyst for widespread change in public opinion, as well as for Progressive reform of government regulations.

Unlike the working world these days, in the years leading up to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, government involvement in business regulation was pretty much nonexistent.  While there were some regulations regarding working conditions and safety, they were typically vague, and generally weren’t enforced anyway.  Regarding fire escapes, Arthur E. McFarlan states “the New York building code was non-committal.  It did not, apparently, wish to go too far” (McFarlane, 41). Apparently, it was the view of the government that requiring an escape route for laborers in case of a fire was “going too far” when concerning regulation.  But the lax attitude towards business that the government held was far worse than that.  In many cases they didn’t even know that a factory had opened its doors for business.  As Alfred E. Smith reveals “So lax had the state been prior to 1911… that there was no way for the state even to know when a factory was started” (Smith, 118).  This statement alone goes very far in showing us just how the government felt about business.  It was a “stay out of their way and let them do their thing” stance, no matter how many people it hurt; and it did, in fact, hurt countless Americans.

Concerning wages of the factory laborers, Clara Lemlich says “they all get different pay for their work, but it runs only from $3 to $4 a week; the finishers make to the $6 to $7 a week” and “we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of material – perhaps $1 or $1.50.  At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries.  We have never been able to find out what this is for” (Lemlich, 56-57). So not only did they make next to nothing to begin with, the employers would then take money out for materials and would apparently take a bit more just because they wanted to, with no reason given.  These women and their families could barely afford to live; they had to share nothing more than a few rolls and an apple for breakfast, barely had enough money to buy second-hand coats to survive the winter, and many people had to send their young daughters to work harsh jobs in factories just so they could afford even that much (Cohen, 46-47).  As for their working conditions, things were even more bleak.Shirtwaist The photo titled “New York Garment Industry Sweatshops, circa 1890” gives us a small glimpse into the environment that so many had to work in.  In it we are shown two female workers in what appears to be a narrow, poorly lit hallway that seems to serve as their work space.  Along with their equipment, the hallway is stuffed with a random collection of cloth and other work related debris is piled on the floors, hanging from the ceilings, and scattered all over the table and counter spaces, leaving the women hardly any room to move around (Photo #10, Kerre).  Not only were the girls forced to work in a shop that was cramped, dirty, and gloomy, but they also feared for their own safety.  As two women relayed to their landlady “that place is going to kill us someday” and “What worries me more is a fire. Since that factory in Newark where so many girls were burnt up there’s not a day when I don’t wonder what would happen if a fire started in our shop” (Scott, Cornell).  It can never be said that the fire was unexpected or that the Triangle Factory owners had no time to prepare.  Fire was a very real danger that these women and girls had to deal with every day of their lives.  Unfortunately, as can clearly be seen, the government didn’t care about the citizens they were supposed to protect, and those that would take advantage of their desperate need to work certainly didn’t care either. This is a fact that Samuel Gompers proves further when he quotes a man who he advised to institute something as simple as fire drills as saying; ‘Let em burn up. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway’” (Gompers, Cornell).  These people were literally at the bottom of the heap of American society, they were called cattle, and they were treated like it by almost everyone that could make any real difference.  They had absolutely no voice to defend them, and no one that would listen to their grievances anyway; that is until the rise of union popularity.

As the laborers quickly began to realize, the Union was their way to finally speak out about the injustices that were being carried out against them on a daily basis and the strike was a way for them to shout “no more!” to the unscrupulous factory owners. The Triangle Strike of 1909, a massive gathering of women unlike any other in American history up to that point, was a protest against despicable wages, the terrible way they were treated, and the unsafe environment they were forced to work in. But ultimately “the main issue [was] recognition of the union.  On that hinge[d] all the other questions at issue” (Mailly, 69).  These women wanted the places where they worked to be unionized so they would have a collective voice to speak for them.  Even when the police, “who have all apparently been in sympathy with the employers”, allowed the women to be abused and even arrested them after they were abused, they still protested (New York Times, 60).  Even when judges, who were supposed to stand for justice for all told them “that their gender would not elicit sympathy in the courtrooms” and that they were “on strike against God and nature” they still protested (Argersinger, 14).  This protest was the end result of a government who pandered to the rich, it was the poor and downtrodden, those who had no power, finally fighting back against these business owners who couldn’t see that their wealth was built on the backs of those laborers that they crushed into the ground on a daily basis. They couldn’t see it, or simply didn’t want to, until the day of the strike, which came at the busiest time of the year for them.  “It could not have come at a more opportune time for the workers.  As a result, from the first hour there was a rush of employers to union headquarters to sign the union agreement… This means not only the establishment of the union in these shops but also a radical increase in wages in many of them” (Mailly, 69).   For the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, however, things didn’t end quite so well.

The strike ended with The Triangle owners refusing to unionize and while the women did win some concessions in wages, they didn’t win as much as others and the safety conditions didn’t change at all (Argersinger, 16).  Unfortunately, this would lead to a fatal fire, a fire the women clearly saw coming, less than two years later.  The fire, which started on the 8th floor because of a match or cigarette carelessly tossed aside, quickly spread to the 9th and 10th floors.  Those on the 8th floor were able to warn the people on the 10th floor, but the women on the 9th were never warned of the impending danger.  The first sign that they had that the building was on fire was when flame and smoke started to fill the air.  The number of employees estimated to be working in the Triangle Factory that day was close to 1,000.  But “whatever the number, they had no chance of escape… The first signs that persons in the street knew that these three top stories had turned into red furnaces in which human creatures were being caught and incinerated was when screaming men and women and boys and girls crowded out on the many window ledges and threw themselves into the streets far below” (New York World, 73).  The women really had no escape from the flames.  The fire escape had collapsed from the number of women trying to flee, the doors that were not locked were already blocked by flames, and the one elevator available was far too small and slow to help more than a handful of people.  Their only options were to jump to a quick death below or slowly suffocate or burn to death.  For many, the choice didn’t require much thought.  One person watching below “saw a girl rush to a window and throw up a sash.  Behind her danced a seething curtain of yellow flame…. Her body went whirling downward through the woven wire glass of a canopy to the flagging below.  Her sisters who followed flamed through the air like rockets” (Chicago, 76).  The scene that spectators watched helplessly was truly horrific, and by the time it was over, less than thirty minutes later, a conservatively estimated 141 lives had been claimed (New York Times, Cornell).

After the fire, the family and friends and the people of New York itself, were understandably grief stricken.  Crowds of people “which numbered… about 400,000” turned out to mourn for those lost (New York Times, 88). However, as people slowly began to realize that the fire didn’t have to happen, grief swiftly changed to anger and outrage.  As the businessmen and the government began their attempts to sweep the accident under the rug, the people began to understand that the industry itself and the regulations that were supposed to govern it were broken, and that along with the women and girls of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, hundreds of others had died at the hands of wealthy industrialists just in that same year.  “It is well known that those who were killed in the Triangle disaster are only part, and a small part, of those murdered in the industry during the passing year.  There were only 147 incinerated and mangled.  But there were thousands of others who met a similarly agonizing fate during this year of 1911” (Literary Digest, 111).  The people would not allow the government to ignore these deaths as they had so many others.  The public had been “convicted” and knew that this happened because of “neglect to enforce laws for the protection of lives of people in factory buildings” (Smith, 117).  If the government would not willingly change, the voice of the masses would force them to.

As rising outcry and heightened publicity protested the injustice that was being carried out a committee was formed to “meet public protest” and to “make a thorough investigation of safety conditions in factories and to pass laws to prevent a recurrence of such a catastrophe…”  (Smith, 117-118).  The government, formerly so pro-business that they let business owners have free reign, had completely changed its tune.  Before the fire the government said “we don’t have time for you,” but after, its new motto became “Health is the principal asset of the working man and the working woman. The state is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers who contribute so materially to its economic wealth and its industrial prosperity” (FIC, Cornell).  With the new government outlook on industry, on June 30, 1911 the Factory Investigating Commission was formed and with it came sweeping reform in working conditions and regulations. By 1913, “the Commission recommended, and the legislature over a period of three to five years, put into law the program of compulsory shorter work day and week for women, limitation of age of children at work, prohibition of night work for women, workmen’s compensation for industrial accidents, measures to prevent industrial accidents, and elaborate requirements for the construction of factory and mercantile premises in the interests of health and safety of the people who worked in them.”  While the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory escaped nearly unscathed from the fire and from justice, for the first time in history, the government had finally stepped in to do its job of protecting its citizens and holding factory owners accountable if they broke the law. As Frances Perkins puts it, “the extent to which this legislation in New York marked a change in American political attitudes and policies towards social responsibility cannot be overrated” (Perkins, 121).

The changes in the government’s attitude towards business after the fire most definitely “cannot be overrated.”  The fire and the outrage that followed afterwards changed the working environment for so many Americans for the better.  Though many of us might take them for granted, almost anyone working in America today can clearly see what workers all over the country gained at the terrible cost of the lives that day.  Our environment is safe, most of us are paid a living wage, we are by and large not treated poorly by our managers, and we are allowed to unionize if we want to.  While there are times when things may seem unfair, or when we feel like our jobs are the worst, there are a variety of different avenues that we can take to voice our concerns and to make positive changes for ourselves and those around us.  It’s certainly not a perfect system, though looking back at what the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had to deal with, it is nearly ideal.  The truth of the matter is that we owe quite a bit of thanks to those who died in that fire, for without their sacrifice, without the grief their families had to suffer through, things might never have changed.

Works Cited

  1. Agersinger, Jo Anne E., The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 14, 16.
  2. Chicago Sunday Tribune, Thrilling Incidents in Gotham Holocaust That Wiped Out One Hundred and Fifty Lives, March 28, 1911 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 76.
  3. Cohen, Rose. Out of the Shadow. 1918 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 46-47.
  4. Federal Investigating Committee. “Importance of Investigation”, accessed on May 18, 2015 @ http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/reports/LegislatureOfNYS.html?sto_sec=investigation#scope
  5. Gompers, Samuel, “Hostile Employers See Yourselves as Others Know You”, accessed on May 18, 2015 @ http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/newspapersMagazines/af_0511.html?sto_sec=mourning
  6. Lemlich, Clara, Life in the Shop, November 26, 1909 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 56-57.
  7. Literary Digest, 147 Dead, Nobody Guilty. January 6, 1912 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 111.
  8. Mailly, William, The Working Girls’ Strike, December 23, 1909 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 69.
  9. McFarlane, Arthur E. Fire and the Skyscraper: The Problem of Protecting Workers in New York’s Tower Factories. September 1911 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 41.
  10. New York Times, Arrest Strikers for Being Assaulted, November 5, 1909 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 88.
  11. New York Times. “141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington  Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside”, accessed on May 27, 2015 @http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/newspapersMagazines/nyt_032611.html?sto_sec=fire
  12. New York World, The Triangle Fire. March 27, 1911 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 73.
  13. Perkins, Frances, The Roosevelt I Knew, 1946 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 121.
  14. Photo #10, “New York Garment Industry Sweatshops, circa 1890” accessed May 27, 2015 @ http://kerre.org/History%20102/Summer%202015/Work%20and%20Living%20Conditions%20Photos.pdf
  15. Scott, Miriam Finn. “The Factory Girl’s Danger,” accessed on May 27, 2015 @ http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/newspapersMagazines/outlook_041511.html?sto_sec=mourning
  16. Smith, Alfred E., Up to Now: An Autobiography, 1929 in Jo Anne Argersinger, The Triangle  
  17.     Fire: A Brief History with Documents. 2009. New York: Bedford, St. Martin’s Press. p. 117-118.

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