The top three floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blazed shortly before quitting time March 25, 1911, trapping 146 people, mostly women, in the inferno.
A stray cigarette or match dropped into a bin of fabric scraps is credited with starting the the fire. The exits were locked by supervisors, who claimed the workers would steal things if they weren’t carefully monitored, trapping them inside. Fire ladders and hoses couldn’t reach the top floors. The fire escape collapsed under the weight of fleeing workers. Many women jumped to their death rather than burn alive.
The Triangle factory is near the Lower East Side, a hub of Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, so many Jewish women worked at the factory and consequently died in the fire. The factory still stands and is now a New York University classroom building, with three plaques memorializing the devastation. (Click here for more on Jewish women in the fire.)
Ironically, the very garment these women were making under deplorable labor conditions is viewed historically as a liberating fashion. The shirtwaist (depicted below) was paired with a skirt to give women more physical mobility, which lead to social mobility as women flooded into the workforce and into the streets to claim their independence. It was certainly a far cry from the bustles, hoop skirts and corsets that confined women for generations prior.
A woman wearing a shirtwaist and skirt | Gjenvick.com
A list of the victims reveals horrifying details about the dead. Ignazia Bellotta’s body was identified by the heel of her shoe. Esther Harris died after she broke her back climbing down an elevator chute. The stocking of Julia Rosen was stuffed with $842, several years worth of wages and the equivalent of $19,000 today. Srar Kupla survived her eight-story jump to escape the fire for fire days before she died. (View the entire victim list here.)
Six of the 146 people who died in the fire remained unidentified for nearly 100 years, until independent researcher Michael Hirsch matched the victims with their names and relatives. After the fire, investigators had assumed these unidentified victims were recent immigrants with no family in the United States to claim the bodies. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/victimsWitnesses/unidentifiedVictims.html
And while the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was a horrifying American tragedy, it spurred sweeping reforms, including new safety and fire regulations, child labor laws and workman’s compensation. It also ignited the American labor movement and union membership.
If you subscribe to HBO, catch the documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire”. It premiered March 21, but check local listings for repeats or visit HBO’s website for more information.
We also created this slide show of photos from the fire.
For more on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, visit Cornell’s website.