One Hundred Year Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

By Bain News Service photograph / George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When we think of desperate people holding hands on a flaming building and leaping to their death, Americans are not generally thinking of the history of labor unions. But on March 24th, 1911, one couple held hands and lept to their deaths, to be followed by some 140 others, in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Bystanders watched helplessly:

Down below on the street, people started to notice the smoke billowing from the 8th floor. One of the bystanders observed a bolt of cloth come flying out the window and hit the pavement. Instinctively, he remarked that Harris was trying to save his best material. As the people on the street moved closer, out flew another bolt. It was then that the realization hit them that it wasn’t bolts of cloth at all but bodies plummeting to the pavement below.

The thousands who watched as the workers jumped flaming to their deaths were instrumental in changing support in favor of labor unions and building codes in New York City. Years before the fire, the women who worked there went on strike to fight for better working conditions, little things like a 52-hour work week and unlocked doors on the factory floor. At the time, the concern about locked doors was that the foreman did so to prevent women from using the bathroom. After a month of striking, the women at the Triangle factory were not able to agree with the bosses on the important sticking points of having a closed shop and collective bargaining. They returned to work, still locked in the building from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

A bit more about the fire, so that we can appreciate the tragedy that occurred a hundred years ago today:

Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions.Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims nearly 100 feet (30 m) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.

One bystander said,

Horrified and helpless, the crowds—I among them—looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.

Two brave elevator operators were able to save dozens of lives, but could not go back for more when the weight of the bodies leaping down the shaft stopped the elevator. He later testified that “he heard bodies hitting the top of the car–blood was dripping on him and coins bouncing through the shaft.” No escape from the elevators, nor the fire escape, nor the locked doors, where firemen later discovered 19 bodies, pressed and melted.

The Centennial of this horror comes at a strange time in our nation. This month, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Scott Walker signed into law a bill in Wisconsin that eliminated collective bargaining, effectively gutting the power of unions in his state. I say you may have heard because the people of Wisconsin made it known they don’t support such a bill. I say you may have heard, moreover because thirteen states are bringing forth similar legislation. The general attitude of many is that labor unions are an interesting theory, but there’s no room for them in the budget. Many more people believe that unions are nothing but a nuisance. In Maine, the governor has just painted over a state funded mural because it depicted the history of labor.
The question of what labor unions have done for this country seems to be hanging on everyone’s lips. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is a fine example of what life was like before labor unions had power. Immigrant teenage girls working overtime in a crowded factory with locked doors, disgusting conditions, seven days a week for less than a dollar a day: the situation at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is what we in the States call a sweatshop. We like to think we don’t have them, that we are somehow better than growing economies like China and India because Americans have a strength of character that makes sweatshops so beneath the average citizen as to be unfathomable. And in this belief they would be right. Not in the way these apathetic Americans think: it’s as though they believe the heavens opened up and sprayed fairy dust and eight-hour work days upon the land, crushing the Indians but bringing a nation of prosperity and rainbows and fair working conditions. That fantasy would be bull shit.
Americans have weekends and building codes and minimum wage only because many people of great resolve stood up for workers rights and formed powerful labor unions. When I say they stood up for their rights, I mean that they faced firing squads and fought militias and died. When I say that they died I mean that they chose to die struggling for their beliefs instead of from black lung or drowning in the blood of a slaughterhouse floor or leaping from the tenth floor of a factory because the bosses have locked the doors and the foreman has fled with the keys.
The tragedy of one hundred years ago would not happen today. But as we let history slip away from us, it may be what the future holds.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on Wikipedia
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on History Buff
AFL/CIO on Labor Unions on the factory conditions and the Shirtwaist factory strike
Wisconsin protest on Wikipedia
History of union busting on Wikipedia
Study: Anti-union behavior by employers intensifies

9 thoughts on “One Hundred Year Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire”

  1. Powerful and emotive. It is easy to see why people grouped together to attempt to make sure something of this magnitude could never happen again.

    1. Thanks Elaine. I hope the centennial today has more people talking about the history of unions. So much of what is great about the US is because of the people who fought for worker’s rights.

  2. That was only 100 years ago. A few lifetimes. We aren’t as civilized as we ought to be, this can certainly happen again. America is a corporatocracy. Goverment officials ride millions in donations into office, then get paid millions to pass laws that pass power to corporations. It’s just business now, no place left for humanity even in self government. The people have lost. Even our media is mostly owned by one man, who has his own views and paid political agendas so our news isn’t real. This is mass madness.

    1. I often think about how small a portion of time humans have been civilized compared to how long humans have existed. Such an insignificant blip. When I feel sad about how often civilization has gone astray, I think of how much progress we’ve made, in the grand scheme of things, it’s quite a bit! We could be capable of great things if only we don’t manage to kill the species off first.

  3. Government employees do not need unions. To compare the Triangle tragedy to the overpaid government workers in Wisconsin is an insult to every single Triangle worker who died. None of the Triangle workers had scheduled breaks, nice air-conditioned work spaces, free health care, paid days off, or fat, guaranteed pensions funded by the taxpayers. DMV drones don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same article as hard workers who were truly exploited. For shame.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that you’ve missed the point, which is that we have nice air-conditioned work spaces, free health care, paid days off, and pensions because we have unions. Before we had unions, people worked in terrible conditions and often died tragically because of it. I’m sorry if I didn’t make this clear, in truth I have a lot more to say on the subject than I could fit in this post. You may not feel that the employees at the DMV deserve as many benefits as they have, but it is a historical fact that the reason they have these benefits is because of unions. It is also a historical fact that many many people died so the folks at the DMV could have those benefits. I don’t wish to quibble over the details of how many benefits this or that person deserves, but the workers at the Triangle factory would certainly disagree with you. They fought to establish collective bargaining and closed shop. They lost that fight, the union wasn’t created, and because of this they could not improve their working conditions, which led to their tragedy. Therefore, it is either shortsighted or hypocritical to honor these workers while at the same time celebrating the fact that the workers in Wisconsin are losing collective bargaining and closed shop unions.

    2. The comparison was clearly made to show what unions have done to improve the workplace since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Comments are closed.