FROM OUR ARCHIVES: ORIGINALLY POSTED FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2011 ON WEWALK: BEHIND THE SCENES OF OPENING THE WAY. EDITED AND UPDATED ON 3/25/2016.
Today, March 25, marks one of the most significant days of the year in women’s labor history. It is the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—the largest workplace disaster in New York up until the World Trade Center attacks. It sprung into action a labor rights movement to enable fair and safe workplace conditions in the twentieth century.
This momentous fire is included in our women’s history walking tour as the turning point in one particular woman’s career and life: Frances Perkins.
To observe the centennial anniversary in 2011, several events took place in New York, as well as detailed coverage of the tragic day in 1911 and the wider impact of the fire:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company specialized in the popular “shirtwaist” which the New York Times blog describes as a “brash but sensible pairing of tailored shirt and skirt” that offers a scandalous peek of its owner’s ankles. It was preferred by women of the day for its utility, as opposed to the longer, more confining dresses that they watched their mothers wear. Located one half-block east from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, NYC, the Triangle factory was the largest producer of shirtwaists in the city. It packed hundreds of young female seamstresses close together on the top three floors of the Asch building, compelling them to work long hours for $5 or less per week.
The infamous fire took place towards the end of the work day on March 25, 1911, when somebody tossed either a lit match or cigarette into a waste basket. It spread rapidly as it caught to the scraps of fabric hanging overhead, and workers scrambled to escape. But the doors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or leaving early, and fire ladders could only reach the sixth floor, whereas most workers were on the ninth floor. (The owners, who were on the tenth floor, were notified by telephone and got out safely, as did other high executives.) Onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people jumped to their deaths. An additional 19 people fell into an empty elevator shaft, 20 fell from a fire escape, and at least 50 burned to death. The fire ultimately killed 146 people, all but 23 of whom were young (mostly immigrant) women.
One of the onlookers was Frances Perkins, a social worker who was having tea in Washington Square Park across from the factory. The fire motivated her to later become one of the most important advocates of reform, and she was named executive director of an organization that formed as a result of the tragedy, called the Committee on Safety. New York State subsequently passed the strongest workers’ laws in the nation and became a role model for other states. It began to mandate automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, fire drills at large companies, and factory doors that swung outwards rather than inwards. It established minimum wages and maximum hours, and demonstrated that the state indeed has a responsibility to protect its workers.
For the 105th anniversary, commemorative events seek to keep the tragedy fresh in our minds, while resources exist preserving the history year round. Although this fire eventually resulted in the U.S. improving labor laws, garment work continues to put people at risk in other parts of the world.