99 Years After the Triangle Fire

by Harry Sheff

Today is the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a tragedy that killed 146 garment workers and injured 70.

I happened to be walking through Washington Square Park yesterday evening after dinner when my girlfriend mentioned the anniversary of the famous fire, and that the building was nearby. I was surprised that it was still standing, but then I hadn’t heard the story since college.

For some reason, I thought the building, at 23-29 Washington Place near Greene Street, would have been in a more out-of-the-way neighborhood. But it’s in the heart of the NYU campus (the building was donated to the University in 1929), just a few blocks from bustling lower Broadway in Greenwich Village.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which made women’s shirts, was a sweatshop. A woman who worked at the factory before the fire noted long hours—certain times of year, the work week was seven days long and shifts could last from 7am to 9pm—and management eager to dock pay for small infractions. She also recalled the managers hiding child laborers when city inspectors came. In 1909, two years before the fire, 400 workers walked out.

On March 25, 1911 (a Saturday), a fire started on a high floor at about 4:40pm. 500 employees on the seventh, eighth and ninth floors tried to get out of the building but 146 of them didn’t make it alive. They died either from the fire itself or from falling (or jumping) from the burning building. Most of the dead were women in their teens and early twenties, immigrants who lived in Brooklyn.

“The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that,” said the New York Times the day after the fire. “In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned.”

Some workers had found themselves locked in (the owners apparently locked doors to cut down on employee theft). Only one elevator was working, and an interior fire escape stairway bent under the weight of the workers who could get to it. Firefighters’ ladders reached only to the seventh floor. Students in the neighboring NYU law school building reportedly saved 150 workers using a ladder from roof to roof.

The owners of the building, Isaac Harris and Mel Blanck, were acquitted: jurors found that they had no knowledge of the locked doors. However, by 1913, their were 23 civil suits filed against them. The owners settled for $75 per dead employee. Ultimately, the fire led to improved workplace safety standards.

An organization called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is staging a number of events to commemorate the tragedy, including a memorial organized by the Workers United union today from 11am to 1pm outside the building.

[Correction: This post originally said that the factory made men’s shirts. As a commenter pointed out, a shirtwaist was a women’s shirt that was styled like a men’s tailored shirt.]