The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The fire that changed America.

The home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, now known as New York University's Brown Building. Photo by Andrew Dolkart.

Today it's not uncommon to hear an employer or employee speak metaphorically of “putting out fires” at work. But once upon a time, at the Triangle Waist Company in downtown Manhattan, employees periodically found themselves extinguishing real fires while on the job. Usually, a pail of water was enough to snuff out a potential conflagration, but on Saturday March 25, 1911, a fire that began in a bin of scrap fabric could not be contained. By the time it was extinguished a half-hour later, the now infamous Triangle fire had claimed 146 lives making it the worst workplace disaster in New York history, a dubious distinction it held for more than 90 years.

In the book “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press), Washington Post writer David Von Drehle provides the first detailed examination of the catastrophe since Leon Stein published “The Triangle Fire” in 1962. More than just a factual account of events, “Triangle” chronicles the preceding labor strife and subsequent political upheaval that makes the fire so historically significant. The author's discovery of a long-lost trial transcript also advances our collective understanding of the circumstances surrounding the disaster, and helps explain why the Triangle was such a safety-challenged workplace. 

As with other preventable tragedies of the era (the Iroquois Theatre fire and General Slocum disaster come to mind), those most responsible for the unsafe conditions at the factory went more or less unpunished. But the victims did not die in vain, as the public outcry that followed provided the impetus for politicians to embrace reforms that, to this day, contribute to public safety.

Waist Not, Want Not
At the time of the fire, the Triangle shirtwaist factory was the largest manufacturer of women's shirtwaists (today known as blouses) in the country. Occupying the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a ten-story building on Washington Place in Greenwich Village, the factory boasted more than 500 employees and churned out more than $1 million worth of blouses every year. By today's standards the hours were long and the working conditions unsavory, but the employees (mostly European immigrants) counted themselves among the luckiest in the garment industry. 

“The Triangle was a good example of what we would call a sweatshop today—a big crowded factory with workers at long tables,” begins Von Drehle. "But the workers would not have thought of themselves as being in a sweatshop. To them sweatshops were tiny tenement factories of ten or 12 people, with no light, electricity or plumbing,” he continues. In contrast, the Triangle was the quintessential modern urban factory, with high ceilings, large windows, rest rooms and electric-powered sewing machines. 

Nevertheless, the co-owners of the Triangle Waist Company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, viewed their employees as nothing more than disposable parts in a giant profit-making machine. If workers griped, their concerns were likely ignored. "The attitude of the owners was shaped by the fact that they came up through the worst of the sweatshops,” advises Von Drehle. "When they went into their factories and heard their workers complaining they probably thought, ‘You have no idea. You have it so good compared to our day.’” 

Striking Out
But Blanck and Harris could not ignore the surge in labor unrest that threatened the garment industry after the turn of the century. In the fall of 1909 a massive strike led by the newly-formed International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) virtually shut down New York's garment industry affecting more than 500 manufacturers. "The workers wanted three things—higher pay, shorter hours, and most importantly, predictable hours,” says Von Drehle. Many of the smaller manufacturers—who could ill-afford having their factories offline for any length of time—capitulated within 48 hours. But 20 leading factory owners convened an emergency meeting and formed an Employers Mutual Protection Association—its primary goal being to resist and crush the ILGWU. 

Led by Blanck and Harris, the large manufacturers fought the strikers on several fronts, using the media and carefully conceived stay-at-work incentives to try and break the union. The manufacturers also benefited from the passive support of politicians and active support of the police. "The police stood by as hired thugs attacked the picket lines and they routinely arrested strikers for disturbing the peace. A number of strikers were sent to jail, yet politicians simply looked the other way,” notes Von Drehle. 

But the strikers got a much-needed boost when their cause was adopted by wealthy, educated, progressive women like Anne Morgan (daughter of steel magnate J. Pierpont Morgan), who contributed money, organized public rallies and helped the strikers attract invaluable publicity. “The newspapers were absolutely fascinated by this phenomenon of J.P. Morgan's daughter and others taking up the cause of the strikers. They brought a level of attention to the strike that the strikers themselves could never have gotten,” says Von Drehle. The involvement of high society ladies like Morgan also made the picket lines less dangerous, as no police officer wanted to be responsible for hassling or arresting the daughter of a famous millionaire. 

While the strike was front-page news for several tumultuous weeks it ended unceremoniously. Initially, the ILGWU insisted that the manufacturers recognize the union as the workers' sole bargaining agent—a real choke point for the owners of the major factories. But in the interest of settling sooner rather than later the union gave in. “They got what they wanted from the small shops and then threw in the towel with the big manufacturers like the Triangle,” says Von Drehle. “They took the higher wages for shorter hours and gave up on the union issue.”

The Safety Dance
One issue not addressed by the union was on-the-job safety. In the early 20th century workplace safety was virtually unregulated, and unnatural deaths at the workplace were far more common than they are today. Imagine unguarded sawmill saws, catwalks without handrails and open vats of dangerous chemicals, and it is easy to understand how workers doing their jobs were an accident waiting to happen. Considering the culture of the time, it's hardly a surprise that Blanck, Harris and their employees never considered the idea of conducting fire drills or devising an evacuation plan. 

In retrospect, it seems that the owners of the Triangle actually had a disincentive to promote safety, as evidenced by the list of suspicious fires that took place at their various factories. Portions of the Triangle factory burned on April 5, 1902, and again on November 1 that same year, while their Diamond Waist Company factory also experienced a pair of suspicious blazes—one in April 1907 and another in April 1910. In all four cases, the fires occurred before business hours and the owners were reimbursed by insurance companies for the surplus merchandise that was destroyed. In essence, Blanck and Harris prepared for fires not by implementing safety measures but by purchasing large insurance policies. They conveniently neglected to install sprinkler systems and other fire safety technology because they never knew when it might become financially advantageous to burn their own shops. 

Of course, garment factories were also susceptible to accidental fires, and the Triangle experienced more than its share. “At the trial they [the surviving employees] talked about the four or five times that fires had broken out during working hours that they had put out,” says Von Drehle. That may explain why on March 25, 1911, when factory manager Samuel Bernstein discovered a fire burning in a scrap bin under a cutting table on the eighth floor, he elected to fight it instead of immediately calling for help. The workers had always been able to contain small fires and this one—most likely started by someone dropping a match or a lit cigarette into the bin—probably looked no different. But this one was different, and fueled by highly flammable cotton fabric strips, it quickly raged out of control. “If Bernstein had notified the fire department and started evacuating workers instead of trying to put the fire out, it's possible that nobody would have died,” says Von Drehle.

Chutes And Ladders
As it were, the employees and both owners (who were on the top floor when the fire broke out) got a late start on vacating the premises. Without any formal evacuation procedure the panicked workers rushed to escape the flames any way they could. The luckiest workers were able to simply run out the door and take the stairs or elevator to the street below. Others attempted to vacate via a hideously inadequate fire escape, which quickly collapsed, causing numerous workers to fall to the ground. The least fortunate souls jumped to their deaths—leaping out the factory windows or jumping into the elevator shaft in a last-ditch effort to escape the flames. 

Still other individuals—including Blanck, Harris and their families—found themselves trapped above the eighth floor, fighting for their lives. “Blanck was paralyzed by fear. His two young daughters had a very harrowing experience and nearly died,” says Von Drehle. In contrast, Harris was courageous and helped to lead the workers on the tenth floor up the stairs and to the roof. “They got to the roof and discovered to their horror that the two adjacent buildings were significantly higher than their building. They thought for a terrible moment they were going to be trapped and die, but Harris managed to climb up 12 feet to the next building, smash a skylight with his hand and call for help,” relates Von Drehle. 

The most enduring myth about the disaster is that the employees were locked in, but at best that can be considered a half-truth. At the end of each workday, the owners typically closed off one of the two exits. “They locked one door so that workers would have to leave through the other,” begins Von Drehle. “This way they could search them to make sure they weren't stealing blouses. At the trial, the owners related without apology or embarrassment why they had everybody leave through one exit,” he continues.

In the end, close to 100 of the 146 victims died by falling or jumping from the building, with the remainder dying from smoke inhalation and burns. While the fire department was criticized for not reaching the fire more quickly, Von Drehle believes the criticism was largely undeserved, especially when one considers the mitigating factors. To being with, fire ladders could reach no higher than the sixth floor. Second, for firefighters, getting up the stairs was akin to a fish swimming upstream, as workers streamed down the narrow stairwells in an effort to escape. "The other complaint was that firefighters stopped to fight the fire on the eighth floor before they went to rescue workers on the ninth floor,” relates Von Drehle. “But if you study—as I tried to do—what firefighters are trained to do, it's drilled into them not to get into a position where you get cut off by the fire and are trapped along with the people you are trying to rescue,” he says.

Truth And Consequences
At first it seemed as if the owners might be held responsible for the disaster. On April 12, Blanck and Harris were arrested and charged with six counts of manslaughter stemming from two of the deaths in the factory. In response, the owners hired an elite, high-priced trial attorney named Max D. Steuer, who managed to get them both acquitted. Steuer also effectively shielded them from various civil lawsuits that ultimately cost them virtually nothing. In fact, from a financial perspective Blanck and Harris made out quite well, turning a profit of $60,000 on the fire, thanks to the huge fire insurance policy they were carrying. 

But in the long run things didn't work out well for either owner. Blanck was back in the media in May of 1912 when his limousine driver hit two children, in two separate accidents on the same day. The following year Blanck was arrested for locking a door during business hours at one of his factories. Meanwhile, their shirtwaist businesses deteriorated over time. “They tried to keep the Triangle going,” advises Von Drehle, “but both of them left the New York garment industry within 10 or 12 years. Over time they were both ruined.” 

History would show that the Triangle fire would have its greatest impact in the political arena, as the Democratic Party seized on the disaster as an opportunity to re-invent its agenda and embrace the reform movement. “Over 10 or 20 years the Democratic Party in New York went from being conservative status quo reactionary to being the leading edge of the working class democratic movement that transformed American politics in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” begins Von Drehle. In the process the typical American workplace became significantly safer. “Doors that open outward instead of inward and sprinklers that are required by law—that's all a legacy of the Triangle fire,” he continues. 

Even today, descendants of the owners are still struggling with the weight of responsibility for such a tragedy. In 2001, descendant Amy Kolen—a writer from Iowa City, Iowa—penned an emotional essay called “Fire” for the Massachusetts Review, which was subsequently re-published in “Best American Essays For 2002” (Houghton Mifflin). “It's a very moving piece that talks about the guilt that remains in her family generations later,” says Von Drehle. 

Although it has only been a few months since the publication of “Triangle,” Von Drehle reports having already been contacted by several descendants of both Blanck and Harris. “Three generations later descendants are still grappling with the shame of the whole thing," he says. "People are still haunted by it."