On Saturday, March 25, 1911, shortly before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory closed for the day, a fire erupted. The factory occupied the top three floors of a 10-story New York City building. Within 20 minutes, 146 garment workers had died—some from smoke inhalation or fire, others by falling or jumping to their deaths. Locked doors and a collapsed fire escape had limited escape. Most victims were young immigrant women. The company’s owners, who fled their office without warning workers, were acquitted of manslaughter when it could not be proved that they knew doors were locked.
Following the tragedy, labor organizers and reform-minded politicians successfully pushed for new fire codes and various protections of workers. Some two decades later, sociologist Ruth Milkman argues, the Triangle fire contributed to “New Deal standards for wages, hours and working conditions, and the right to organize and bargain collectively” at the national level. Nonetheless, even today, many workers still face immediate hazards and chronic health risks in the workplace. The materials below explore the fire’s complex causes and aftermath. They include government and union reports from subsequent investigations as well as speeches, testimonials, and newspaper stories. –Prof. Kathleen Brosnan
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Primary Sources: Original Documents from the Time
“141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building; Street Strewn with Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside.” Newspaper Article. New York Times, March 26, 1911. Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. Cornell University.
Gompers, Samuel. “Hostile Employers See Yourselves as Others Know You.” Magazine Article. American Federationist, May 1911, pp. 356-361. Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. Cornell University.
Report of the Joint Relief Committee, Ladies’ Waist & Dressmakers’ Union No. 25 On the Triangle Fire Disaster.” Report. New York, January 15, 1913. Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. Cornell University.
Secondary Sources: What Historians Have Written
Kessler-Harris, Alice. “Women’s Choices in an Expanding Labor Market.” In Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States, 108–41. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. (Companion Canvas page.)
Orleck, Annelise. “Coming of Age: The Shock of the Shops and the Dawning of Political Consciousness, 1900-1909.” In Common Sense and A Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965, 31–52. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. (Companion Canvas page.)
Roediger, David R. “Class Conflict, Reform, and War: The Working Day from 1907 to 1918.” In Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, 177–208. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. (Companion Canvas page.)