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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

On This Day in Jewish History: March 25, 1911

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On this day, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire takes 146 lives. Walk the streets of Manhattan’s East Village, Lower East Side and Little Italy on March 25 and you will see chalked on the sidewalk the names and ages of the 123 girls and young women and the 23 men who died on this date in 1911 in the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The Triangle was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris both of whom were Jewish immigrants. On this day, 110 years ago, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of what was then called the Asch Building located on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. As a bin of shirtwaist scraps ignited and the room filled quickly with fire and smoke, the young garment workers, almost all of them Jewish and Italian, were trapped inside because the factory’s owners made a habit of locking the exit doors to prevent workers from taking unapproved breaks. For some workers on the 9th and 10th floors, escape to the roof was possible and for others, the elevator and stairs were paths to safety until the elevator wires and stairways buckled under the heat. The rest were trapped. The single fire escape in the building had bent out of shape from the heat of the fire, and the firetrucks that had arrived at the scene were of an inadequate height to reach the top three floors. Many died from burns and smoke inhalation, others jumped to their death nine stories to the pavement. At the time of the fire, approximately six hundred workers were in the building. The source of the fire is still debated; some say it was a cigarette, aimlessly tossed, while others claim it was a lighted match dropped in a bin of fabric scraps, or even a bad sewing machine engine. It was a mere three months prior to the fire that the New York City Fire Commissioner had declared the Asch Building to be a firetrap, and rightfully so. A lack of stairways, plus the maze-like shop floors and locked doors meant that the hundreds of employees were trapped the minute they walked onto the top three floors. In less than twenty minutes, the Asch Building became a site of colossal tragedy. Faced with death by fire, many workers chose to jump to their death; others attempted to escape by elevator, but in the end they were just another pile of bodies. The lives of 146 people, mainly Jewish immigrant women between the ages of 13 and 23, were taken in those first twenty minutes. The fire was put out in less than an hour, and the building was mostly intact. A week after the fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory reopened in a new building. What followed the fire was a widespread public response, one that demanded justice for those who were killed. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire triggered protests among the Jewish community and the general, progressive public. These protests led to the establishment of the New York State Committee on Safety that investigated the circumstances and recommended that a committee be created, specifically considering the safety of factories. On June 30th, 1911, the Factory Investigation Commission was established by the New York State Legislature. Within four years, the Factory Investigation Commission had helped pass 36 statues that dealt with regulation, child labor, work hours, safety measures and more. One of the most tragic episodes in the history of American labor, the Triangle Fire underscored the mistreatment of workers, highlighting not just unsafe conditions but also poverty wages. The only labor law that Blanck and Harris had technically violated at the time of the fire was Section 80: “All doors leading in or to any such factory shall be so constructed as to open outwardly where practicable, and shall not be locked, bolted or fastened during work hours.” Blanck and Harris had both escaped the fire, and though they were put on trial for manslaughter, they had ultimately been acquitted. Twenty three families of victims of the fire had sued Blanck and Harris. Both were found guilty on charges of wrongful death two years later and were ordered to pay $75 to each family for damages. As devastating as it was, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire marked an important point in American history, one that was unmistakably Jewish in its own right. The fight for labor rights during the modern era took place in New York City, the center of Jewish life in America at the time. Still, the horrific events galvanized a movement on behalf of factory workers laboring under sweatshop conditions. The death of the 146 factory workers in the Asch Building transformed the rights of the working class in America and shifted the perception of social justice and the power of the public. Membership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union swelled and the New York State Legislature enacted numerous laws mandating better access to building exits, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, and cleaner conditions for workers throughout the workplace. Today, the building is part of New York University and the events of that dark Saturday afternoon in 1911 are annually commemorated. The struggle for labor rights, for a new generation of immigrant workers, continues.

Resources:

Kosak, Hadassa. "Triangle Shirtwaist Fire." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/triangle-shirtwaist-fire. Lanier Pence, Patricia, et al. “And All Who Jumped Died: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” Management Decision, vol. 41, no. 4, May 2003, pp. 407–421, doi:10.1108/00251740310468135. McEvoy, Arthur F. "The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911: Social Change, Industrial Accidents, and the Evolution of Common-Sense Causality." Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 20, no. 2, 1995, p. 621-654. HeinOnline. Pictures: Stairs after the fire-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_newspaper_photograph_of_an_internal_staircase_in_the_Asch_Building_after_the_Triangle_fire_(5279144863).jpg Crowds watching the fire-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crowds_fill_the_street_and_watch_as_the_Asch_Building,_location_of_the_Triangle_Waist_Company,_burns,_March_25,_1911_(5279143669).jpg Protests after the fire-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Demonstration_of_Protest_and_Mourning_for_Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_Fire_of_March_25,_1911,_04-05-1911_(11192161883).jpg The fire burning, the ladders too short-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Firefighters_spray_water_on_the_Asch_Building_trying_to_put_out_the_Triangle_factory_fire_blaze,_March_25,_1911_(5279335917).jpg Blanck and Harris-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Max_Blanck_and_Isaac_Harris,_owners_of_the_Triangle_Waist_Company_(5279933972).jpg The only fire escape, bent from the fire-- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Triangle_Waist_Company_fire_escape,_weakened_by_the_heat_of_the_fire,_leads_from_upper_floors_of_the_Asch_Building_(5279681954).jpg

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