The One with the Shirtwaist

Among the people walking through Washington Square Park in Manhattan on March 25, 1911, was a reporter for the United Press news agency. William Gunn Shepherd followed the sound of women screaming, volunteer firemen sloshing buckets of water and windows shattering. As he reached the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, he saw what the commotion was about – a mushroom of smoke billowed into the sky and fire raged from the Asch Building.

March 25 was a Saturday. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, it was the shortest day of the workweek — 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with a 45-minute break for lunch. Five hundred workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, took the freight elevators to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, the top three floors of the building.  They were part of the largest blouse making operation in New York, shipping more than 2,000 garments per day. Owners Max Blanck and Issac Harris, immigrants coming from abject poverty themselves, were finally living the good life; receipts at Triangle totaled one million dollars a year (in today’s dollars).

There were 240 sewing machines installed on each side of eight long tables spanning the length of the room. The most skilled job was that of a draper, who turned the designer’s vision into the actual garment. Esther Harris was a draper and one of the highest paid workers at Triangle, making $22 per week. Not far behind on the pay scale were the cutters whose job it was to place the patterns on the fabric with maximum efficiency. Perhaps it was one of those cutters, closest to the scrap bins filled with tissue paper patterns and fabric, who tossed a lit cigarette in her rush to head home. It was 4:42 p.m., and the end of a long work week.

The fire quickly grew from the scrap bin and licked at the hanging patterns. As the patterns dropped onto the tables, they ignited the fabric that had been left for Monday morning. The 180 women who worked on the eighth floor were already lined up at the Greene Street elevators, where they had to wait at wooden partitions to be inspected for theft. Panic rippled through the women as they noticed the smoke and flames beginning in the corner of the room. There was a firestorm effect where small pieces of burning fabric flew in tornado-like funnels around the room, catching everything in their path on fire. Some of the women rushed the partition and shouted. Some sprinted to the Washington Place exit. Some ran to the fire escape, and some tried to put the fire out with water pails. But the flames just got stronger.

There were dozens of little details that piled on top of each other and turned a terrible situation into a catastrophe. Dinah Lipschitz, a manager on the eighth floor, called the tenth floor to alert them to the fire. But then the switchboard operator dropped the call before she could connect them to the ninth floor. The doors to the stairwell opened inward instead of outward. The crush of people prevented them from opening the doors.  Ida Cohen was one of those women. “All the girls were falling on me and they squeezed me to the door.” Finally Louis Brown was able to push the women away from the door, but it was locked. He rushed to find a key.

As the eighth floor darkened with smoke and the heat rose, manager Samuel Bernstein got the fire hose. It was supposed to be connected to a large tank on the roof, but it wasn’t. He lost three to four minutes of precious time while he tried to get water to come out. Only five to six minutes after coming to life, the fire had consumed most of the eighth floor – more than 9,000 sq. ft.

For the women who had run to the fire escape, the route down was terrifying. The landings and sloping stairs were wide enough for only one woman at a time. The fire escape ended over a basement skylight in an airshaft enclosed on all sides by the three buildings that occupied the city block. Realizing this, one woman opened the sixth floor shutters and broke through the window. Women followed her lead and ran to the stairwell on that floor only to find the doors locked. But they were the lucky ones. They were later rescued by a police officer who heard them pounding on the door. The fire escape soon collapsed taking dozens of women with it.

Outside, a crowd had gathered on Greene Street. Flames rising from the eighth floor windows were being sucked into those on the ninth floor and from there they lapped at the top floor. As the first horse-drawn fire carriages arrived, women appeared in the windows of the eighth and ninth floors, craning for fresh air and for a ladder that would never come.  The fire captain ordered the longest ladders drawn up to the building, but fully extended, they reached only the sixth floor as did the stream of water from fire hoses. A team of firefighters entered the building and reported that the treads of the stairwell were cracking in the heat. The smoke was so intense they couldn’t stand to face it. They lay on their bellies  and opened the hoses.

Then the bystanders saw something large and dark fall from one of the windows. “He’s [owner Max Blanck] trying to save his best cloth,” said a voice in the crowd. When the next bundle began to fall, they realized it was a human being.  “I learned a new sound,” reporter William Gunn Shepherd would write later, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”

In only eighteen minutes, the three top floors of the Asch Building were engulfed and 146 (nearly all) women, average age 20, perished.  As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to recognize these mostly anonymous women in some way. Their deaths brought forth great change — new legislation for safer working conditions, such as sprinkler systems, unlocked doors during business hours, clear pathways to clearly marked stairwells, and fire escapes that exit to the street — a direct result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

A segment from CBS Sunday Morning with photos of some of the women and details of the sweeping workplace reform that occurred as result of the fire.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Advertisements

86 comments

  1. What an horrific tragedy! What a crime! I suppose there are some comparisons to 9/11, but thank God for the reforms that followed. Fascinating post, Jackie. Hope you have a great weekend!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    Like

  2. Great post Jackie! I’ve often wondered about this disaster and I have read about it on Wikipedia (the perfect source of research for slackers), but this post is such vivid reporting about this event I could almost smell the smoke and feel the heat. What a terrifying way to die, but at least this monumental tragedy and the martyrdom of so many young women resulted in such a positive change in the workplace environment.

    Like

    1. On March 25 each year, FDNY goes to the Asch Building (now the Brown Building) and rings a bell 146 times while extending the ladder to the 6th floor of the building which is as high as the ladders would go in 1911.

      Like

  3. Beautifully done, Jackie. I got goose bumps.
    As I read, I thought of all the women and children in other countries who don’t have our laws. We’ve improved things in our part of the world, but I bet India and China are still far behind.

    Like

    1. Thank you for making that very important point, Cynthia. This is a good opportunity to mention that for much of the developing world, factory conditions are still considerably sub-par to put it mildly.

      Like

  4. Heart wrenching. And sad to think many people still work in similar conditions in our world. It also made me think of Blurt’s recent post about people waxing nostalgic for “the good old days”. And to think these women didn’t yet have the right to vote to improve their conditions. We have come a long way. Good post!

    Like

    1. Thank you for these great comments. One important component / aftermath of this tragic event was unionization. Because they couldn’t vote, many of the women who worked at Triangle tried to improve their working conditions by organizing into a seamstress labor union (prior to the fire). All attempts had been thwarted by the owners.

      Like

    1. Thanks so much Carole. I was thinking exactly that when I was writing this post. I go to my office every day and my biggest complaint is that sometimes the temperature of the room is too hot. Imagine being subjected to the working conditions these women were subjected to ( and many other women around the world still are ).

      Like

    1. It’s one of those events that has largely been lost to time, but it was critical in realizing a lot of important workplace safety reforms in the West. Sad that it took this tragedy to make those changes.

      Like

  5. Thank you for this. I’d read about it before, but I didn’t even know some first-hand accounts existed from within the building. It makes my stomach turn thinking about it. Those poor girls.

    Like

  6. So sad that it took this tragedy to wake people up to the need for workplace safety. I think of the Triangle victims every time I see a smoke detector.

    From what I understand, it was an accident waiting to happen. There were a lot of flammable materials around.

    David von Drehle wrote an excellent book about the Triangle fire. Worth reading if you haven’t already.

    Like

    1. Last week we had a fire drill at my office/ and I couldn’t help but think about the Triangle women. Thank you for recommending the book by David von Drehle. I haven’t read it. I found it on Amazon and I’m looking forward to learning more.

      Like

  7. The fact remains they make people work in the same conditions and environment today around the world. Labor history repeats itself time and time again, apparently always for the same reason, money and power, I suppose in that order?

    Like

    1. You’re so right about that. I hope this post gives people a moment to remember the workers of the Triangle Company, and bring some awareness that there are workers around the world still in the same plight. Thanks for your comment.

      Like

      1. As an old union represented, my cynical self says the fight has never ended, not even close and today inequality seems to be even worse then back in the early 20th century, when the Robber Barron’s before then said; “they could hire half the working class to kill the other half”. still seems so today?

        Like

  8. Thanks for this post. As others have commented, its importance is not only historical but the fact that many, especially women, are working under similar conditions in other parts of the world today. Women still work under terrible conditions to help support their families.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure, but it’s a good one. the shirtwaist fire is a very forgotten even, unfortunately. there are so many throughout history. One of the big one’s during WWII is the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Tatiana de Rosnay pulled from this tragic event to write her book Sarah’s Key. It was only when I read this book that I found out about the event. It’s a shame it is forgotten and goes unlearned

        Like

      2. Thank you for reminding me about Tatiana de Rosnay’s book. I’ve been meaning to read it, partly because I wanted to learn more about this event. I just added it to my TBR list. Thanks!

        Like

  9. One of the US more tragic moments. I am always struck by this story. My students are blown away by it. Yet our world, our own country, is still battling big business to keep the worker safe. And we are so tied to the outside world as well. The products we buy, little bits of this and that imported from everywhere, were built on the backs of people who work in terrible conditions. Thanks for reminding us that we must continue to lobby for safe work conditions world wide.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. Many workers around the world are still struggling for basic treatment. I just read an article in the Guardian that more than 900 workers have died in Qatar building the World Cup infrastructure: “Workers described forced labour in 50C (122F) heat, employers who retain salaries for several months and passports making it impossible for them to leave and being denied free drinking water. The investigation found sickness is endemic among workers living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions and hunger has been reported. Thirty Nepalese construction workers took refuge in the their country’s embassy and subsequently left the country, after they claimed they received no pay.”
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

      Like

      1. I love world cup soccer, but the whole mess in Brazil and now Qatar sickening. FIFA is going to make a ton of money, and a small per cent will go to the communities that need it.

        Like

  10. Thanks, Jackie, for reminding us why we need workplace safety rules and for remembering the women laborers who had to lose their lives in order to secure rules that value human life over cloth and profits. Unfortunately, American retailers have moved to other countries that do not have our safety standards and horrific workplace tragedies still happen–think Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

    Like

    1. Though the number of workers who perished in Rana Plaza was much higher, the parallels between that and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory are tragically similar. Workplace safety is such an important issue worldwide. Thanks for your comment.

      Like

  11. First, this article reminds me of theaters of the not-so-distant past. Fires were a common hazard, and people died in terrible way. If you weren’t lucky enough to get out, you were trampled to death, and if you weren’t lucky enough to be trampled to death, you burned to death.

    Second, this:

    “I learned a new sound,” reporter William Gunn Shepherd would write later, “a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.”

    I was literally sick in my belly when I read this. Perhaps the best description of a sound I have ever read… and it’s not even a description. It’s a statement of the sound’s creation, which is horrifyingly effective.

    Like

  12. Reblogged this on Barb Mann Art Gallery for a New Era and commented:
    I saw a documentary and painted this event into my painting, with a pool below,if you’d like to try it. These women died and saved the lives of untold numbers by setting a precedent for safety regulations. Please check out my painting at address on wordpress. Let’s make the truth be known. Thank you Jackie Cangro. what a terrific name, seems to be indicative of you. barb

    Like

  13. I remember watching a documentary on this tragedy. We have no idea how good we have it nowadays, do we?

    On a cheerier note, congratulations on the FP, it is so deserved. Woop, woop, woop! Raises glass of champagne in salute.

    Like

    1. I had a chance to check out the YouTube clips from Up from the Ashes. Marvelous! This project really feels like everyone involved poured their heart and soul into it.
      And a riveting, inspiring performance by the actress!

      Like

What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s