Why This New York Tragedy Still Matters, 107 Years Later

 
  New York City men and women involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union protest and mourn after the fire, April 5, 1911. (Kheel Center/   New York Books   )

New York City men and women involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union protest and mourn after the fire, April 5, 1911. (Kheel Center/New York Books)

 

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, New York, 1911:

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire began in a rag bin. The manager attempted to use the fire hose to extinguish it, but was unsuccessful, as the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut.

As the fire grew, panic ensued. The young workers tried to exit the building by the elevator but it could hold only 12 people and the operator was able to make just four trips back and forth before it broke down amid the heat and flames.

In a desperate attempt to escape the fire, the girls left behind waiting for the elevator plunged down the shaft to their deaths.

The girls who fled via the stairwells also met awful demises–when they found a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, many were burned alive.”

 The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a 10-story building in New York, being hosed down on March 25, 1911 where 146 workers lost their lives in one the country's worst workplace tragedies. (Source:  Cornell / Wikipedia )

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a 10-story building in New York, being hosed down on March 25, 1911 where 146 workers lost their lives in one the country's worst workplace tragedies. (Source: Cornell/Wikipedia)

The tragedy that is now known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire— recounted above by History.com— only lasted 18 minutes.

But what took the flames only 18 minutes to destroy wasn’t built quite as fast. Years of subtle decisions made by factory owners, consumers, and the norms of the garment industry contributed to the disaster— and we’re still learning from those mistakes today.

On that Saturday afternoon in 1911, some workers were able to escape by climbing up to the roof of the building but not before the fire claimed 146 fatalities. Historians suspected the fire to have started with a discarded cigarette. The flames drew attention to the poor working conditions within the garment industry. Conditions that, by today’s standards, many would characterize as a “sweatshop.”

But here’s a fact that may surprise you: In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wasn’t actually considered a sweatshop.

 Similar to today, most garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were young, immigrant women.  (HBO/NPR)

Similar to today, most garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were young, immigrant women. (HBO/NPR)

In fact, it was a modern facility for the time, that was only 10-years-old at the time. The horrific fire happened where people least expected— all while costs for clothing were continually lowering, and consumers weren’t asking why.

The fire—and the resulting death of 146 young, immigrant women— spurred many garment workers and politicians to action, resulting in many of the worker-safety regulations and laws we’re familiar with today.

This was one of the events that contributed to the start of the Factory Investigating Commission, New York State Department of Labor, unions, building codes, child labor laws, and minimum wage requirements.

 Remnants after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. (  Smithsonian   )

Remnants after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. (Smithsonian)

In the United States, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred, modern legislation protects against a tragedy of this nature happening again.

However, many garments are now made overseas where there often aren’t regulations keeping modern day garment-workers safe.

In fact, another garment industry tragedy, the Rana Plaza Collapse, was as recent as 2013.

Here, the Smithsonian describes many of the issues that contributed to the fire:

“Today most Americans know a mostly accurate, if jumbled, account of the Triangle Waist Company factory fire, but few realize the role of consumers in the death of the 146 workers. The women in the factory made ready-to-wear clothing, the shirtwaists that young women in offices and factories wanted to wear.

Their labor, and low wages, made fashionable clothing affordable. Seeking efficiency, manufacturers applied mass production techniques in increasingly large garment shops. Entrepreneurs prospered, and even working-class people could afford to buy stylish clothing.

When tragedy struck (as happens today), some blamed manufacturers, some pointed to workers, and others criticized government. Their labor, and low wages, made fashionable clothing affordable.”

 Scraps of material are scattered on the floor inside the factory.  (   Cornell University   /   Public Domain   )

Scraps of material are scattered on the floor inside the factory. (Cornell University/Public Domain)

This statement begs the question— is getting a great deal on a new shirt really worth it? It was true in 1911, and still is today— if we, as consumers, aren’t paying for what our clothes are really worth, someone else is.

Someone, somewhere.

Similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, garment workers around the world are still making up the difference for consumers to score a great deal— even 107 years later.