Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the heart of New York City, a lethal fire broke out on the factory floor, located at the top of the ten-story Asch Building near Washington Square East. Trapping many of the textile workers inside, the fire claimed the lives of one in four employees: more than one hundred women and two dozen men, many of them young, recent immigrants and non-English speakers, perished in the blaze or while jumping from windows to escape. The dangerous working conditions responsible for the fire and its casualties were typical for urban factories, often known as sweatshops, of this period. The largely preventable tragedy and its aftermath helped to galvanize a series of reforms in the working conditions of laborers that continued through the twentieth century.

Girls wanted. Henry Glintenkamp, artist; published in: The Masses, v. 8 (February 1916), p. 9. Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948. Prints & Photographs Division

Prior to this devastating fire, New York City workers, including Triangle Shirtwaist employees, had begun to organize for better working conditions.  On November 22, 1909, the Great Hall at Cooper Union was filled with thousands of local workers, including labor movement leaders Clara LemlichExternaland Samuel Gompers.  It was Lemlich, a Jewish immigrant, who called for a general strike. The New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909—also known as the Uprising of the 20,000—had begun. The Women’s Trade Union League provided guidance to the strikers, helping them to determine their list of demands, which included shorter hours, better treatment by bosses, the end of night work, and a fair wage. When the strike finally ended, Triangle Shirtwaist, like many others, took back the strikers at higher wages  and shorter hours. And yet, the reforms were not enough. One year, one month, and seventeen days later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory erupted in flames.

Less than three weeks after the fire, on April 11, 1911, factory co-owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck were indicted on charges of manslaughter—but when the case went to trial that December, they were found not guilty. Despite the verdict, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would never fully recover. Harris and Blanck moved their operations several blocks away, but within a few years both the company and the business partnership came to an end. Yet the story was larger than the fate of a single enterprise, and had far greater staying power.

[Group of mainly female shirtwaist workers on strike, in a room, New York]. January 1910. Bain Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Labor and relief organizations sprung into action. Mourners took to the streets. News of the fire and subsequent trial were reported nationwide. Multiple newspapers reported that the Triangle Shirtwaist factory doors  were locked or swung inward, and that many of the exits were blocked or in disrepair. Importantly, as many papers including the The Yakima Herald noted (March 29, 1911, p. 6), the “greater number of the employees were unable to speak English yet there were no Yiddish or Italian directions.”

“148 Perished in Fire: Wild with Fright Girls Leap to Sure Death on Pavement.” The Oklahoma State Capital, March 26, 1911. Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room

Set against the backdrop of lax labor standards paired with rising immigration since the end of the nineteenth century, the Triangle Shirtwaist incident speaks to the adversities faced by many thousands of immigrants, especially women, as they attempted to make their way in a new country. In the wake of the fire, immigrant communities memorialized the tragedy, while labor organizations such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (founded 1900) gained newfound momentum, organizing workers to engage in collective bargaining to better their daily lot.

Die fire korbunes [The Fire Victims]. David Meyerowitz, composer; Louis Gilrod, lyricist; Jack Kammen, arranger. New York: Theodore Lohr, 1911. Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music. Music Division

But the story is not all tragedy.  Witnessing this event is credited with inspiring the labor-reforming career of Frances Perkins, who  later became the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet in 1933. As Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Perkins created sweeping reforms including the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Labor Standards Bureau.  During her tenure:

“…child labor was abolished, minimum wage and maximum-hour laws were enacted, and, through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers were guaranteed the right to organize and bargain collectively. She also chaired the Committee on Economic Security, established in 1934, which recommended the nationalization of unemployment and old-age insurance. Thanks to her committed pursuit of this ideal, the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935.”

Notable New YorkersExternal. Columbia University Libraries

The ordeal of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, together with the labor movement that surrounded and grew from it, inspired countless workers to organize for better treatment. Together with business owners and government regulators, they forged the strong set of worker protections and workplace standards that are a crucial part of labor law in the United States today.

Learn More

Maryland Day

On March 25, 1634, the first group of settlers landed in what is now southern Maryland, an event commemorated each year on Maryland Day. The land was chartered by King Charles I of England to Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. Named for the king’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, Maryland was the first proprietary colony in what was to become the United States. Lord Baltimore had almost absolute control over the colony in return for paying King Charles a share of all gold or silver discovered on the land.

Bird’s Eye View of Cumberland, Maryland 1906. Morrisville, Pa., Fowler & Kelly, c1906. Panoramic Maps. Geography & Map Division

Maryland became a safe haven for Catholics escaping religious persecution in England. In 1649, Governor William Stone, under the direction of Lord Baltimore, passed an act ensuring religious liberty and justice to all who believed in Jesus Christ.

Annapolis was named the capital of Maryland in 1694 and is home to the nation’s oldest statehouse. Built in 1772, the Maryland State House is still in use. Annapolis is also the home of the U.S. Naval Academy, founded in 1845. The city of Baltimore, founded in 1729, remains one of the busiest ports in the nation with respect to handling foreign tonnage and the dollar amount of cargo handled.

Annapolis and the Naval Academy from the State House Dome. W.H. Wallace, c1911. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Maryland entered the Union in 1788 as the seventh state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. During the War of 1812, when British troops bombarded Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, one of the city’s young lawyers, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the attack and penned the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Nearly fifty years later, when Americans fought the Civil War, Maryland saw one of the war’s bloodiest battles on September 17, 1862, by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg.

…in this place on our b: Ladies day in lent, we first offered, erected a crosse, and with devotion tooke solemne possession of the Country…

Father White (a priest who accompanied the Maryland colonists), “A Briefe Relation of the Voyage Unto Maryland.” In The Calvert Papers, Number Three. Baltimore: 1899, p. 39. Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925. General Collections

Learn More