back to top

The Tragedy Of The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Was A Landmark For Workers' Rights

The 18-minute fire killed 146 people and spurred unions and legislators to push for better working conditions.

Posted on

Over a century ago, almost 150 textile workers perished in a sudden factory fire. The incident was inconceivably tragic – and could have been prevented.

Library of Congress / Via chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

In 1901, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company's sweatshop moved into New York City's Asch Building on Greene Street and Washington Place. By 1908, the company would expand to the eighth, ninth and tenth floors.

Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

Shirtwaists in the early 1900s were a staple in women's clothing. They were versatile blouses with varying embellishments that could be tucked into a skirt. Therefore, many companies such as Triangle dedicated their entire staff to producing them.

Library of Congress / Via chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, Samuel J. Hood Studio Collection / Via Flickr: 33147718@N05

Most of the employees at Triangle were young immigrant women who didn't speak English well or at all. They worked 12-hour-long days with few breaks.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

The factory floor was cramped with rows of sewing machines. It probably would have looked similar to this textile factory in Troy, New York, with little room to move and fabric everywhere.

Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

There were four elevators in the building, but only one worked, and it held twelve people at a time.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

The building was required to have three stairwells but only had two. One exit was always locked from the outside by the owners to prevent theft by the workers. The other exit opened inward. There was a fire escape, but it was narrow, flimsy and impractical for evacuation.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

In 1900, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union was formed. It united many unions and organized strikes in several cities for better wages, hours and conditions.

This photograph shows employees of the Puritan Underwear Company at New York City's 1916 May Day parade. Their union was affiliated with the ILGWU.
Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

This photograph shows employees of the Puritan Underwear Company at New York City's 1916 May Day parade. Their union was affiliated with the ILGWU.

In 1909, the ILGWU organized a strike known as the "Uprising of the 20,000," attended by mostly Jewish immigrant women. When an agreement between the ILGWU and factory owners was made, Triangle Shirtwaist didn't sign.

Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Wikimedia Commons

The fire spread rapidly, igniting the fabric all around the room.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Workers on the eighth floor ran to the doors. One was locked. Finally unlocking it, the door opened inward. So many people were up against the door that it took time to even get out.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Rushing down the stairs from the eighth floor, some people fell, causing a blockage. A policeman helped the fallen so they could continue on.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

The executive offices on the tenth floor had been called and notified of the fire. They were able to climb onto the roof and escape to the building next door. The ninth floor, however, hadn't been told of the fire, and only found out when they began to see it.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

Ninth floor workers tried two different exits: the Greene Street exit and the Washington Place exit. About 100 workers who chose Greene Street made it out alive. The Washington Place exit was locked.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Some who had tried the locked exit went onto the fire escape, which was already crammed with people. Weakened from the fire, it buckled and separated from the building, flinging the workers to the ground below.

A photograph showing the warped fire escape.
National Archives Catalog / Via catalog.archives.gov

A photograph showing the warped fire escape.

Meanwhile, the elevator operators were making rescue trips to multiple floors. Some ninth floor workers who were locked out of the Washington Place stairwell tried the elevator, but it was already full of eighth and tenth floor workers.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Amidst the confusion, those left behind jumped, or perhaps were pushed, into the elevator shaft.

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Others leapt from windows, and some fell on fire hoses, which hindered the firefighting.

National Archives Catalog / Via catalog.archives.gov

Firefighters held out nets for jumpers, but the bodies actually broke through the nets. The fire department's ladders only spanned six to seven floors, so it was impossible to reach the top three floors of the building.

Library of Congress / Via loc.gov, National Archives Catalog / Via catalog.archives.gov

Out of 600 employees in the factory that day, 146 died. The whole incident took place in about 18 minutes.

Library of Congress / Via loc.gov

On April 5th, soon after the fire, the ILGWU held a funeral march on Fifth Avenue. Hundreds of thousands attended and marched.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter, Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

On April 11th, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, Triangle's owners, were indicted on seven counts of manslaughter. They were acquitted despite having intentionally locked the doors.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

It could not be proved that they knew the doors were locked, even with compelling testimony from surviving workers.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

Two months later, the Factory Investigating Commission was formed, whose expansive work led the State of New York to pass 36 bills by 1915 that would improve safety for workers. The fire also resulted in the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law of October 1911. It mandated that sprinkler systems must be installed in all New York City factories.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

In August 1913, Blanck was charged with locking a door in the factory, but was simply fined $20 and even received an apology from the judge for the inconvenience.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

The following year, Harris and Blanck settled on 23 civil suits filed against them, paying $75 per death. However, they would continue to insist their factory was perfectly safe.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

In 1991, the location of the fire, renamed the Brown Building, was declared a national historic landmark. Today, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition spreads information about its history and organizes events on its anniversary.

Beyond My Ken / Via commons.wikimedia.org

The victims of the Triangle fire suffered a horrible fate while their employers escaped their due justice. However, in the aftermath of the loss of that day, anger arose, out of which came change for the better. The Triangle Fire is a story of humanity we cannot forget as we continue to push towards better workers' rights today.

Kheel Center / Via Flickr: kheelcenter

This post is part of a series called Backstitch, which discusses real stories from fashion's deadly history. See more on Instagram and Facebook!

Andrea Hickey / BuzzFeed

Top trending videos

Watch more BuzzFeed Video Caret right

Top trending videos

Watch more BuzzFeed Video Caret right
The best things at three price points