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This Week in History

March 25-31, 1911:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

March 2012

The Asch Building.

On March 25, 1911, an horrendous fire swept through the ten-story Asch Building in New York City's Greenwich Village. The top three floors of the building were occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and 146 garments workers, mostly young women, died that day, when their only means of escape consisted of jumping out the windows, or hurling themselves down the elevator shafts. The exit doors had been locked, both to prevent union organizers from reaching the company's employees, and supposedly to keep the workers from stealing any of the fabric. The single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the women who were able to reach it.

There had been similar fires on a smaller scale in other factories over the past decades, but there was little public reaction and precious little legislation to protect working people. The large numbers of immigrants who had come to the "Land of Milk and Honey" were crowded into slums and had to enlist their entire families, including young children, into working long hours in order to barely survive. One-third to one-half of the working population of the United States toiled up to 12 hours daily, sometimes even seven days a week, in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. This was true in the factory towns as well as in the city slums.

Eighteen years before the Triangle fire, during an economic depression, many workers were forced to accept deep wage cuts, but others were fired and replaced by children. An Oshkosh, Wisc. newspaper attacked this practice, saying that, "with an army of idle men in our midst, children who ought to be in school are doing factory work.... Put men to work and let babies go home!" But children continued to be recruited for factory work, and the situation of their parents was also hazardous. Unions conducted some successful organizing drives, but the reaction of most business owners was epitomized by a corporate executive who stated, "If a workman sticks up his head, hit it!"

Union organizers had tried to sign up the Triangle Shirtwaist workers the year before the fire, but management fired the workers who had dared to join the union and mount a strike for better working conditions. The company then replaced them with newly arrived immigrants, who spoke a variety of languages, and were unable to communicate clearly with their fellow workers. Most of them were in their teens. It was these women who were caught in the fire. Although the building had fireproof construction which met the codes of the time, and still stood after the fire, the paper patterns, fabric cuttings, bolts of cloth, and the oil in the sewing machines, combined to create an inferno.

Cotton Mather
Frances Perkins.

When the fire alarms rang close to where she lived, one young woman and her friends ran to the site of the fire. The woman was Frances Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt's future Secretary of Labor. In 1911, she was working for the New York City Consumers League, making safety inspections of factories and bakeries. The scene, said Perkins, "struck at the pit of my stomach. I felt I must sear it not only on my mind but on my heart as a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that would permit such a tragedy."

All but one of the women on the top floor were able to escape the fire by running to the roof. The building next door was occupied by New York University, and some of the law students maneuvered a ladder down from their roof and helped the women to safety. But the workers on the eighth and ninth floors were not so fortunate. The firemen rigged nets, but all the jumpers went through them, some of them cracking the sidewalks so badly that they fell through them as well. The fire horses that pulled the fire engines, trained to hold steady even during the noise of a blaze, became wild and terrified by the smashing sounds of the bodies and the blood that ran in the gutters. No one who jumped from the windows or down the elevator shafts, or who piled up against the locked exit doors, survived.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, who after eight fires in nine years, still had refused to hold fire drills, were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, but were acquitted by a jury. In 1914, the civil suits which were filed by some of the workers' families against the building's owner resulted in an average payment of $75 per employee.

Public shock and outrage after the fire was tremendous. During a cold rain, 400,000 people lined Fifth Avenue, as 120,000 men, women, and children marched in a funeral procession for seven unidentified victims. The Sunday after the fire, 3,500 people, including Frances Perkins, attended a mass meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House. One of the speakers was Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the Shirtwaist Makers Union, whose strike had been defeated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Schneiderman spoke softly but intensely and soon the audience was completely hushed. "I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies, if I were to come here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public—and we have found you wanting.... This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The lives of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if 140-odd are burned to death."

The result of the meeting was the formation of a Committee on Safety, manned by prominent civic leaders. The Committee turned for help to the Consumer's League, and Frances Perkins, with her experience in safety inspections, was loaned to the group to help them influence New York's Governor Dix to initiate action by the state. Dix, in turn, referred the committee members to Al Smith, the majority leader of the New York Assembly, and Robert Wagner, the majority leader of the Senate.

The committee members feared "the hand of politics," and wanted the appointment of an executive commission of "the finest people in the state." Perkins watched with admiration as Smith convinced them to go with a legislative commission, funded directly by legislative appropriations. "These fellows in the Assembly," he said, "are good men at heart. They don't want to burn up people in factories. They just don't know anything about how to prevent it, and they don't really believe that there is any hazard until you show them. And they'll be more impressed if it is shown them by their own commission and own members."

The committee followed Smith's plan, and in May the legislature approved the Wagner-Smith Resolution creating a New York State Factory Investigating Commission. The Commission's mandate went far beyond fire prevention and safety, and included sanitation, industrial disease, machinery, hours, workmen's compensation and, later, wages. Over three and a half years, it conducted the most intensive study of industry ever undertaken in the United States.

Frances Perkins worked with the Commission as an expert witness, an investigator, and a guide on surprise trips to factories. She conducted Smith, Wagner, and other legislators through the often impossible routes to safety which the workers were supposed to follow. In one instance, she made Senator Wagner crawl through a small hole which was supposed to lead to a fire escape, but it only led to a steep and ice-covered ladder which stopped 12 feet above the ground.

In addition to safety problems, the Commission also uncovered widespread violations of the child labor laws. Businesses that denied employing young children were often found trying to get them out of the plant by rear doors or hiding them in sheds and elevators. Just as important, Perkins took the investigators to model factories, which were able to make a profit while still operating according to high safety standards.

The Commission's work eventually resulted in 36 new state laws for the protection of industrial workers. It also completely reorganized the old state labor department by creating a new Industrial Commission. Although Frances Perkins at first did not think highly of the new state senator from Duchess County, Franklin D. Roosevelt testified in favor of all 36 bills. When Al Smith became Governor of New York, Perkins accepted his invitation to become a member of the New York State Industrial Commission. In 1929, the new Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, appointed her the Industrial Commissioner of the state. And when Roosevelt became President in 1933, Perkins became the U.S. Secretary of Labor. It was in this capacity that she chaired the commission which drew up the legislation to establish Social Security.

On March 25, 1961, Frances Perkins stood on a speakers' platform with Eleanor Roosevelt, Rose Schneiderman, and 12 survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On the 50th anniversary of the fire, the Asch building still stood, now made completely fireproof, and converted into classrooms for New York University. Perkins helped to unveil a plaque on the building which read: "Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world."