The Triangle Fire of 1911
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, in New York City a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One of the worst tragedies in American history it is known as the “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”. It was a disaster that took the lives of 146 workers, most of which were women. This tragedy pointed out the negatives of sweatshop conditions of the industrialization era. It emphasized the worst part of its times the low wages, long hours, and unsanitary working conditions were what symbolized what sweatshops were all about. These conditions were appalling, and no person should ever be made to work in these conditions.
Sweatshops were originally set up to produce a large quantity of mostly clothing items, with cheap labor wages for its workers. Sweatshops more often than not were cramped buildings with few windows or fans. The people who worked in these sweat shops rarely received breaks, and would on average 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. The places were so unsanitary many did not have proper plumbing facilities to accommodate all those who worked there, and no way of cleaning or bandaging a cut or wound if injured on the job. Although these were the common standards of sweatshops the Asch Building, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located was a very large building, with nine floors. This building was large but cramped due to all the workers, material and machines. Every inch of viable space was used to put either a machine, material or another worker.
Sadie Frowne, a swear shop worker from New York City stated “The machines go like mad all day because the faster you work the more money you get. Sometimes in my haste I get my finger caught and the needle goes right through it. It goes so quick, though, that it does not hurt much. I bind the finger up with a piece of cotton and go on working”. This was the mind set of most of the workers in the sweatshops. They hated their job and long hours but as long as they worked the money, as little as it may be, still came in.
Most sweat shops were employers of immigrant’s, men children, and women. Women were especially employed at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, because it was easy to persuade women to come in and work. The ratio of men to women in the factory was largely outnumbered by women 6:1. This was the beginning of the industrial age and a new age of women working for themselves. Women having jobs in this era gave them a sense of independence and freedom to get out of the house to perform labor in exchange for money.
The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wereMax Blanck and Isaac Harris. These men were wealthy business men who did very little work and made a fortune off the backs of hard working women, and immigrants. These men were held in high regard for there riches among there rich friends in the community. Although among the less off people of New York, Mr. Blanck and Mr. Harris, along with other sweatshop owners, were thought as money hungry, filthy rich men who had no mercy, let alone personality towards the people whom worked for them.
According to New York Fire Marshal William L. Beers the fire was started in this fashion, “The result of my investigation and the taking of testimony for ten days after the fire was that I was of the opinion that the fire occurred on the eighth floor on the Greene street side, under a cutting table, which table was enclosed and that contained the waste material as cut from this lawn that was used to make up the waists. They were in the habit of cutting about 160 to 180 thicknesses of lawn at one time; that formed quite a lot of waste, which was placed under the cutting tables, as it had a commercial value of about seven cents a pound”. “Well, we formed the opinion that it started from the careless use of a match from one of the cutters. They were about to leave to go home, and in those factories they are very anxious to get a smoke just as quick as they get through work.” (Famous Trials). So interpretation of this report, the fire was caused by a match dropped into a box full of fabric that was waste from the shirtwaist products they produced.
The catastrophic fire of the Asch Building left many people, especially Italian and Jewish immigrants jobless and poverty struck. These people had come to the United States to make their lives better, and keep a steady income to support their families. Although many people were left jobless the most important fact of the event of the fire was that 146 of the 600 members of the factory lost their lives in the blaze. Most but not all of those who had died were women, some of which were still in their teens. The ninth floor, where most of the casualties happen, was full of sewing machines and the women who ran them. Since the fire started on the eighth floor the employees above on the ninth floor (mostly women) had little time to react to what was going on and began to panic. Due to the fact the building was only equipped with one lone fire escape those on the top floors began to flee to the fire escape, noticing that it was jam packed with people, others ran to the Washington Place exit only to find out that the doors had been locked. People in the factory were running with no where to go to get out. Many of the employees made an ultimatum to themselves, either get burnt up by the blaze, or jump out of the windows that were eight to nine stories above the streets. Many of the casualties from the incident were not only of those being trapped in the burning building but of those have no other option but to jump from the blaze.
Te victims of the event range in variety in gender, ethnicity and age. Since the majority of those who worked in the shop were women, they lead the category in the deaths based on gender. Of those who lost their lives the age range was from the youngest, Mary Goldstein age 11, to Mrs. Panno Providenza she was 48. Although heavily out numbered by the women the youngest man who died was Isreal Rosen, while the oldest being Jacob Selzer.( Famous Trials)
Although 146 people lost their lives unwillingly, due to modern slave like working conditions, their deaths affected many more people than just themselves alone. Many of those who died in the tragedy left behind husbands, wives, children, and parents. In one such instance the Bernstein family lost four members. I am unaware if this was the entire family, but if it was not the effects done to those surviving them would have to be very tragic let alone emotional in the broadest context.
As stated earlier by Fire Marshal William L. Beers, in theory, concluded from substantial evidence that the fire was caused by a carelessly thrown match into a pile of scrap material under a fabric cutting machine. It was stated earlier “in those factories they are very anxious to get a smoke just as quick as they get through work”.( Famous Trials) Although this was the theory for causing the fire, the main people responsible would have to be the owners of the building. Mr. Blanck and Mr. Harris, are the primary culprits, just because of the unsafe working conditions. Even though the building was “fireproof” according to the owners, but they still had no other means of fire safety in the building. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory contained no sprinkler systems, only one fire escape, and did not partake in fire drill practices.
The building codes of those days were a lot less strict as they are now, and that is how they got away with not having proper fire safety. New York state laws required many fire codes and regulations on buildings of that magnitude. Several reports have shown that the Asch building was in violation of many of these codes. Such as stated in the New York Labor Laws Section 6 Article 80, “All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be constructed as to open outwardly, where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted, or fastened during working hours.” ( Famous Trials) According to this law the owners were in direct violation, because of the Washington Place door was locked and did not allow workers to escape while the building was going up in smoke. According to the Building Codes of that era the locked doors was the only violation that it technically had, but the buildings specs pushed the limits of most of the codes. Another person who could be to blame for the lack of fire safety is the building inspector who approved the building for final inspection. In those days a number of codes and specifics were at the jurisdiction of the building inspector of the day.
This horrible event definitely branded its mark into the hearts, and souls of those people in New York and across the rest of the developing industrial nation. Those New Yorkers who lost loved ones in the event where most directly affected. Having to pick up the pieces in your family after an event like that could be very disheartening. Not only were those New Yorkers who lost some one affected, those New Yorkers who were innocent bystanders who watched the building burning, and jumpers from the building, also had strong emotional feeling toward what they saw.
The news of the fire quickly spread across the country, with citizens asking numerous questions of why? Other Americans began to think of their own jobs and how they would be affected if this were to happen to them. Sweatshops were a new way of giving those less fortunate people in our industrialized country a job. After hearing the news those who worked in the factories across the country began to question their own fire safety and building codes. The tragedy overall, made Americans step back and put things in perspective.
I firmly believe that the Triangle Fire tragedy could have totally been prevented. The only reason that it was not was because the owners of the company could not look past the numerous amounts of money they were making. They did not care about there employees. If those owners would have cared they would have not of treated there workers/(“slaves”) the way they did. If only a frequently practiced fire escape plan would have been implemented the casualties would have been drastically lower, if not eliminated. Although the building was said to be fire proof, there was enough flammable material in that building that disproved that fact.
After the wreckage had been cleaned up and the causalities mostly identified, there was an intense investigation of the building. The investigation started just a few days after the tragedy happened. After an eight month period of collecting evidence, a trial by jury was called in New York.
The two main characters who were being indicted as suspects in the case were the two owners. These two men were indicted on seven accounts of murder in the first degree. They were brought to trial on December 5th 1911 with their fate lying in the hands of six jurors. Although the numerous indictments the men had against them, they were only brought to trial on one of them, the first degree manslaughter of Margaret Schwartz.
Twenty three days after the initial indictment, and after much concluding evidence from the prosecution and eyewitness’, and countering evidence from the defense; the jury made a decision. The sixth jurors appointed by the judge, all from New York, had concluded that Mr.Isaac Harris and Mark Blanck were innocent. This decision made by the court sent a shock wave of mixed emotions through the community. Those surviving members of the fire were ordered by the judge to be out of the courtroom during the trial. On the day the verdict was delivered the congregation of people outside the courtroom was numerous. Most people outside could not understand how these to men had not been proven guilty. There were a select few who sided with the two men but the majority reaction was a stunned crowd who thought the justice system had cheated the city of New York, and the 146 lives lost in the tragedy.
In the next few years many civil cases were filed against the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Although it took three years before the two men would settle and agreed to pay each person $75 dollars for the lives lost in the fire.
No one in there right mind wanted this tragic event to happen and as much tragedy that it caused, there was also some good as well. There was a commission called the Joint Board of Sanitary Control, which was assembled one year before the Triangle fire. These people conducted there own investigation of the fire, and concluded there own evidence of the tragedy. With the Joint Boards influence, along with other committees in the city, many new laws were implemented dealing with labor safety. These new laws included, routine inspection of fire escapes, proper inspection of existing and new buildings, and the use of automatic sprinkler systems.
The Triangle Fire in 1911 was an event in its own category. I am sure that something like this could happen today in a factory or office building. The way that our society has been operating in the past few years I would not put anything out of the question. If it did happen I do not believe that the casualties would be in the great proportion that they were in the Asch building fire. I think that if something like this would happen today there would be some severe repercussions served to the business that it happened to. I do not think that the owners would be acquitted like Mr. Blanck and Mr. Harris were.
In comparison with the Triangle Fire in 1911, the Rhode Island nightclub fire has a few similarities. Just like sweatshops, night clubs are often times over crowded and do not have enough fire exits to satisfy the overcrowding that takes place in nightclubs. Just as a miss thrown match caused the sweatshop fire, a miss thrown match in a night club could cause the same catastrophic event. In theory the number of smokers in an overcrowded night club often times outnumber non smokers, which could very well cause an unwanted fire that leads to a tragedy.
Famous Trials. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial 1911. (website).
The Triangle Factory Fire By: Cornell University ILR School (website).
U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center. Nightclub Fires in 2000. (PDF File).