One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a ten-story building in the lower Manhattan entered American history when it witnessed New York City’s deadliest industrial accident. On that day the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took the lives of 146 garment workers.
This tragedy that opened an era of industrial reform has inspired a number of commemorations, including an exhibit at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (the building where the fire occurred is now owned by NYU), and a March 25 event sponsored by the garment workers’ union. Also recalling the deadly fire are two remarkable documentaries released to coincide with the anniversary. “Triangle Fire” was produced and directed by Jamila Wignot for PBS’ highly regarded American Experience documentary series. Meanwhile, Daphne Pinkerson and Marc Levin bring us the HBO documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire.”
Both films take us back to a time when New York’s Lower East Side was a crowded warren of tenement buildings packed with recent immigrants to America—a preponderance of them Jews escaping the anti-Semitism rife in Czarist Russia (which then encompassed much of Poland and Eastern Europe). The storied neighborhood had also emerged as the center of the American garment industry as manufactured ready-to-wear came to dominate the clothing market. The maze of concrete structures concealed a multitude of cramped shops and homes where men, women and often whole families toiled away on pedal-operated sewing machines upwards of 14 hours per day on piecework contracts handed out by jobbers.
The Triangle Waist Company, we learn, was hardly one of the worst workplaces in the city’s garment district, and probably one of the better ones. “Getting a job in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a pretty desired position, because they were working in a much more modern factory environment,” explains historian Annelise Orleck. “Compared to the coal-stove heated, dusty, hugely crowded sweatshop rooms, Triangle was a plum.” The “Shirtwaist” or “waist” was the latest turn of the century fashion: the woman’s blouse. Owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, themselves part of the same immigrant milieu as their workers, had emerged as the “shirtwaist kings” with their efficient factory employing hundreds of workers on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch building at Washington and Greene. There a few dozen strong men swiftly cut cloth from standardized patterns and passed it on to the hundreds of young women and girls for assembly on electrically powered sewing machines. The Triangle girls—mostly Jewish or Italian recent arrivals in America, and many as young as 14—might bring home two desperately needed dollars each day to help support their families in New York, or even back in the old country.
Leaders of the American labor movement in that era were somewhat skeptical about the ability of these workers to organize on their own behalf. After all, it had only been with great difficulty that skilled building tradesmen and machinists had formed enduring trade unions and come together in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) over the previous few decades. Neither immigrants nor women had a very successful track record of collective workplace action.
That track record radically changed in 1909. For some time the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union had been organizing among the industry’s workers, and multiple shops had been struck, usually with the same sorry result: the owners quickly found replacements for the striking workers and relied on the police and hired thugs to deal roughly with any picketers who tried to interfere. The garment union called a mass meeting that November to debate next steps, and a young union firebrand named Clara Lemlich rose to speak. A local celebrity after gangsters in the hire of her employer had broken her ribs in a futile attempt to intimidate her, she proposed what was on everyone’s mind—an industrywide strike shutting down the garment industry. Her call received an overwhelming response, and the young immigrant women poured out of the tenement shops and into the streets. “Ten thousand, twenty thousand, this is more than any one of us had dared to dream or hope for,” said striker Paula Newman. “This is not a strike. This is an uprising.”
What came to be called “The Uprising of the 20,000” would continue for months, with the shop owners discovering that many of their old techniques no longer worked. The mass strike was a media sensation, and New Yorkers were appalled at photographs of police arresting (and hoodlums accosting) the petite young women on the picket lines. Moreover, their fortitude caught the attention of well-placed suffrage activists and wealthy society women who raised substantial contributions for the strike fund. One by one, shops anticipating the approaching spring fashion season chose the better part of valor and decided to recognize the union and settle with their workers.
Except, that is, the Triangle Waist Company. Blanck and Harris led a small group of holdouts that agreed to increased wages for their workers but would not sign an agreement with the ladies’ garment union and become a “union shop.”
Thus Triangle Waist was a famous name even before Saturday, March 25, 1911.
Each floor at Triangle Waist had two exits to stairwells, facing Greene Street and Washington Place respectively. However, it seems that the practice at quitting time was to lock the Washington Place doors and compel the workers to walk single file through the Greene Street exit, while guards inspected their bags to make sure no one attempted to steal a blouse or a bit of lace. It was about 4:45 pm, as the workers prepared to leave for their short one-day weekend, when a box of fabric scraps on the eighth floor of the building burst into flames.
Most of the workers on the eighth floor realized what was happening soon enough to flee down the stairs; most on the tenth floor made it to the roof where NYU students in a tower next door aided their escape from the inferno.
On the ninth floor—the most densely packed—scores were burned alive.
Modern as the Triangle factory was, neither the building nor the plant were models of the latest industrial hygiene. The boxes of scraps were an obvious hazard; emergency sprinklers had been invented, but they were not installed in the Asch building; the fire escape was frightfully poorly designed. (As workers piled onto the flimsy structure, it was torn from the masonry and those upon it fell to their deaths.)
Firefighters were as helpless as the rest of the spectators who had gathered below; the tallest ladders in the city only reached to the sixth floor and could provide no aid. In the most gruesome part of the spectacle, workers from the doomed ninth floor climbed out broken windows. One by one, as bystanders cringed, Triangle girls leapt to their deaths to escape the flames.
Thanks to the press coverage of the Uprising two years before, the young women of Triangle Waist were no longer anonymous and expendable; New York City was outraged by the catastrophe. Blanck and Harris eluded manslaughter charges because jurors were not convinced that they knew the Washington Place doors were locked that day. But the fire was a catalyst for a series of reforms regulating safety, hours of work and other conditions in industrial workplaces—a reform campaign largely led by state legislator Al Smith, himself a child of immigrants on the Lower East Side who would go on to the governorship and in 1928 become the first Catholic to make a serious run for the American presidency.
Both documentaries tell much the same story, using a similar repertoire: archived photos, stock black and white film footage, “talking head” interviews with scholars and descendants of the story’s principals. The PBS “Triangle” devotes much of its viewing time to context, with extended treatments of the turn of the century garment industry and the union struggles, leading into the account of the terrible fire. HBO’s “Triangle” narrative is built around a blow-by-blow recounting of the fire itself, with contextual information offered along the way. Either film would make an excellent educational tool for a high school classroom or a parish social justice group.
At a time when ever more insistent voices call for unions and “big government” to stop obstructing business, the fire offers a crucial warning. “People forget the Triangle fire at their peril,” observes labor historian Leigh Benin. “If people want to know what deregulated industry would look like, look at the bodies outside the Triangle building.” In the absence of labor unions and public regulations to set a solid floor under working conditions, Triangle fires (and Deepwater Horizon disasters) are certain to continue. The same market competition that makes free enterprise so enterprising also drives every firm to constantly lower costs, even—at times—at the price of jeopardizing safety and justice.
“Triangle, Remembering the Fire”  will premiere March 21 on HBO.
“Triangle Fire” premiered Feb.28 on PBS and can be viewed online .