It is important to take time to remember a tragic event that occurred one hundred years ago on March 25, 1911. I am thinking, of course, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which was the single most devastating disaster in New York’s history until September 11, 2001. And it was primarily a woman’s disaster. Certainly the advocates for unionization before and after the tragedy were mainly women.
It is also important to mark this day, not just to commemorate the young women and men who died in the fire, but to remember why they died--how unnecessary it was.
Late in the afternoon on Saturday, March 25, 1911, the young female employees and a few men who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were thinking about going home after a long work week. The company was in the top 3 floors of the 10-story Asch building on Washington Place in lower Manhattan. (The building, called the Brown Building, is still standing and is now a part of the NYU campus at 23-29 Washington Place, between Greene Street and Washington Square East.) The factory employed about 600 workers, mostly young women who were primarily immigrants from Germany, Italy and eastern Europe.
The Triangle Company had already gained a certain notoriety in the city because of a spontaneous walkout of some of its workers two years before and when some of those workers sought help from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, employers locked out the organizers. During a mass meeting at Cooper Union a young woman, Clara Lemlich, stood up and fired up the audience. (More about wonderful Clara Lemlich on another day.)
The crowd responded wildly to this brave, articulate woman and voted for a general strike, which later was called the Uprising of 20,000 or the Great Revolt. Wikipedia estimates that 20,000 of the 32,000 employed in the garment industry went on strike. However, this labor revolt was brutally suppressed by the police and hired thugs. Prominent women such as the future New Deal Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont supported them by raising money and even by picketing with them. The strike lasted only 2 days but public awareness had begun. Some conditions improved in some companies but the general acceptance of reasonable hours, safe conditions and living wages was many years away. Even today, in some states, conservative state governors are leading the fight to withdraw the acceptance and recognition that unions have won.
The conditions in the Triangle Factory on that late Saturday afternoon in 1911 were ripe for a huge conflagration. Floors were covered with scraps of cloth, flammable fabrics were stored everywhere, tissue paper cut-out drawings flapped over the sewing tables, open gas lights lit the airless rooms and often the male cutters smoked while they worked. There was only one old fire escape that led down to the street.
The factory was a disaster waiting to happen. When the fire started (and no one knows how or why), most workers on the tenth and eighth floors had sufficient warning to be able to evacuate in time before being overcome, but the warning came too late for the poor people on the ninth floor. There were only two doors out, one leading to a staircase already filled with smoke and fire and the other was locked. The fire escape became twisted and fell to the street and the elevator ceased to function. The elevator door was pried open and panicked women jumped down the shaft, only crushing the bodies below.
As horrified spectators watched outside, the workers smashed the windows and, as happened in our World Trade Center tragedy, victims chose to leap to their doom rather than be burned to death. What a horrible choice these poor young women had to make.
It should be noted that the two owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck escaped injury or death by ascending to the roof. They were also later acquitted of wrongdoing in knowingly locking the factory doors; however, two years later, Max Blanck was arrested for again locking the doors of his factory while it was in operation. He was fined $20.00...
As we noted before in our blog of December 22, 2008, F.D.R.’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, later the architect of much of the pro-labor New Deal legislation, was a horrified witness to much of the human tragedy on that March afternoon in 1911 and it made an enduring, haunting impression on her. Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by thinking that the lives of those 146 young people indirectly helped the lives of millions of others. Nothing can take away the tragedy, but we can remember and mark the event with a few moments of respectful, appreciative thought.