Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911

On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers in Manhattan — mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women employed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory — died in one of the nation’s worst industrial fires.  Here’s a description of what happened from an online exhibit hosted by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (link here):

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The tragedy led to legislation covering worker health and safety, spurred the growth of the American labor movement, and shined a light on working conditions of those toiling in sweatshops in the nation’s cities.

Pictured above

The fire occurred on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of this building, located just east of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.

The photo on the left is a contemporary view looking at the building’s south side, from which some 50 women jumped to their deaths rather than face being burned alive.

The photo on the right is the building today, now known as the Brown Building and owned by New York University. (Both photos courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I recently walked by the building and gazed upwards. Other than two modest plaques marking the historical significance of the building and the fire, there is no visible evidence of the tragic event. On a nice fall or spring afternoon, with the Washington Square area alive with students, tourists, and locals enjoying the day, it’s hard to imagine the horror of what happened there. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing.

To learn more

Cornell online exhibit

The Cornell website (link to front page, here) is a treasure trove of information about this tragedy, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what happened.

Books

These two books provide vivid, informative accounts of the fire and its aftermath:

Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire (1962)

David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (2003)

Documentaries

PBS recently aired American Experience: Triangle Fire (2011).

HBO is airing Triangle: Remembering the Fire (2011).

9 responses

  1. I went to classes in that building, and one day we had to descend the outside wrought iron fire escapes from the fifth floor when there was a fire alarm (false alarm). It gave me a sense of how scary it was for the young women in that building being so high up — and the fire escapes we used were an improvement made only after so many had lost their lives in that fire. The student going down the stairs just in front me was freaking out and having trouble navigating the perforated iron stair runners in her backless Candies high heels. I kept thinking about those other young women and how scared they must have been. I am still angry that money trumps safety in countless work situations — thank you for what you are doing to help.

    • Jerri, thank you for sharing that story. I graduated from the law school back in the day and walked by that building I don’t know how many times before I learned about the Triangle Fire. The tragedy of that day is so at odds with the carefree feeling of hanging in Wash Sq Park nearby.

      And what a twist it is that the same questions about worker well being and safety endure to this day. It’s certainly better than in 1911, but we’re miles from the Promised Land.

      David

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