The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: A Man-Made Disaster

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was March 25, 1911, in New York City. It was a Saturday afternoon just like any other at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where young immigrant women sat in front of sewing machines, day in and day out, sewing. But on that day a fire broke out, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers. Among those who died in the flames and smoke were 123 women and 23 men.1 Many even jumped or fell to their deaths out the windows, making this event a man-made disaster and one of the deadliest industrial disasters of all time.

Horse-drawn fire engines in street going to the fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The factory was located in the Asch Building at Washington Place in Greenwich Village, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the ten-story building. Max Blanck and Issac Harris were the owners of the factory, and their company was known as the largest firm in the business at the time. They styled women’s blouses known as “Shirtwaists,” which were paired with tailored skirts. This attire had become the standard in fashion for women in the early twentieth century. They were also known to resemble men’s shirts. When it came to their workers, they had hired operators who then contracted out for factory workers. The company itself only dealt with the contractors, and there was no fixed rate of pay for the workers.2 At the time, the factory employed about five-hundred employees, mostly young immigrant women who were of Italian or Jewish descent. These women worked up to eleven-hour shifts on weekdays, and twelve-hour shifts on Saturdays, and they earned between $7-$12 dollars for a 52-hour week. Many of these women were the breadwinners of their household, and their income was sometimes not sufficient to cover their needs.

Towards the end of the workday on that Saturday evening in 1911, a fire broke out around 4:00 pm. The fire started in a scrap bin under one of the cutter’s tables on the eighth floor from what is believed to have come from a cigarette. A manager tried to put the fire out with a hose but the hoses valve was rusted shut, and rotten away. The fire spread quickly and the workers panicked. There was one fire escape that quickly collapsed, and four elevators, which out of the four only one was working. The elevator held twelve people at a time, and it managed to make four rescue trips before it broke down.3 With no other alternatives available, people began throwing themselves out the windows, and some were even crushed to death trying to get out. Workers tried to take the stairs, but the exit doors only opened inward and were kept locked by factory management to prevent theft by the workers, as the managers would check their workers belongings every day before they left for the day.

Bodies of workers who jumped from windows to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Celia Saltz Pollack, a survivor of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire said,

I remember on that day there was a lot of singing and happiness in the shop because it was the end of the week and we got paid. We were soon all going to go home. When the fire started I was sitting at my machine. I looked up and saw the fire near the cutting tables but I did not think it was so terrible. What was terrible was that the fire spread in a split second.

By the time the firefighters arrived, they came to the realization that their ladders could only extend up to the sixth or seventh floors. With no other option, sixty-two workers jumped and fell to their deaths, while the remaining died from the smoke and flames within the building.4

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This fire not only pushed issues of unsafe factories and immigrant exploitation into the public consciousness, but for the first time the fire allowed for attention to be brought to deplorable conditions of New York factories.5 Women obtained well deserved attention onto current work conditions and safety measures in the workplace. Although the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire brought a feeling of resentment and heartbreak to many, this event and its victims will always be remembered.

  1. Ric Burns, “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 24, 1999.
  2. Jonathan Fink, “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” TriQuarterly, no, (2009): 135-136.
  3. Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, s.v. “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire,” by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk.
  4. Mia Lynn Mercurio, Régine Randall, “Tributes Beyond Words: Art Educators’ Use of Textiles to Memorialize the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” Journal for Learning through the Arts no. 1 (2016): 4-5.
  5. Albert Marrin, Flesh and blood so cheap: The Triangle fire and its legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 23-25.

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96 Responses

  1. I had never heard of this event in American history before. This is truly a horrible tragedy. The fire could have been prevented, as well as measures to evacuate could have been in place. Sadly, this was a time before the regulations and safety precautions we have now. Its always terrible to hear about needless loss of innocent life. Thankfully, with articles like these, the victims are able to be remembered. Tragic events such as these should not be forgotten.

  2. This article did a good job of telling the horrific events that occurred, and although this event was horrific and should not have occurred, it helped bring to light many of the issues faced during this period of American history. The concept of workers’ rights was unknown and many failed to care about the lives of those they employed, this accident and those that lost their lives helped bring about a change towards labor rights, even though it would still be a battle change would come.

  3. I remember learning about this Shirtwaist factory fire many years ago in a history class and was astounded by the results of the incident. The quote by a fire survivor gives insight into what those ladies (and men) felt that day it is so sad. They did not expect it and were unable to prevent nor control it. One second, everyone was happy and their day was going like any other day, the next second women are jumping out of windows. it is sad to see this is what it took to realize the dangers of a hazardous work environment.

  4. I had already heard about the tragedy because they did a play at STMU about it. However, I did not know the full details and now I understand it better. It is extremely unfortunate that so many people lost their lives due to poor and unsafe conditions. I cannot even imagine what would it be like to choose in between dying in a painful way or jumping out of a window. Having a factory with that amount of workers is a very big responsibility, as owners/CEO’s they should ensure and prioritize their worker’s safety.

  5. While I had heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire before, I did not know the details of what happened. The choice between being burned alive and jumping seven or eight stories to your death is awful. This story highlights the old saying that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If the water hose had been kept in working order, they could have put out the fire while it was still small. If the elevators had been kept in good condition, then people could have escaped.

  6. This article was a great read. I definitely think that it did a great job of explaining the events that took place, as well as what happened as a result of the fire and the effect that the fire had. I was not very familiar with this story prior to reading the article but I had heard of it. It is tragic that so many people lost their lives due to unsafe working conditions, and some even from attempting to survive the fire and jump to attempt to escape. I can not imagine how it must have felt to be stuck in such a fire.

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