Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On this day in 1911 as many as 141 young women employed as seamstresses by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company died when their workplace caught fire; the death toll would eventually climb to 148, as a few of the survivors later succumbed to smoke inhalation in hospital.

PhotobucketLocated on the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building at the corner of Washington and Greene streets (east of Washington Square) in Manhattan - theirs is the uppermost sign on the corner of the building in foreground of the photo - the sweat shop employed as many as 500 women, most of them under the age of 25 and some as young as 12, for wages of $6-7 per week. As well as seamstresses, the company also employed floor walkers, who kept an eye out for theft, in addition to guarding locked exit doors and occasionally sexually harassing the workers.

The fire broke out on the eighth floor of undetermined causes; some said it was a carelessly discarded cigarette, others an ember from one of the stoves used to heat the presser's irons, and still others from the heat of the irons themselves - not for nothing were these called sweatshops, as even in the middle of summer stoves were kept blazing. What is known is that the fire spread quickly, due to the amount of flammable fabric, tissue paper, and chemicals stored on the site.

Early on in the evacuation the building's single flimsy fire escape buckled under the weight of those attempting to flee; more than 60 young women trapped on the 9th floor chose to break the windows (which had been nailed shut) and throw themselves to their deaths rather than being burned alive, horrifying onlookers who'd begun to gather on the street below. Others pried open elevator doors only to tumble to their death; one survivor was later found nearly drowned in a puddle of water at the bottom of the shaft.

The litter of bodies on the street made the fire department's job even more difficult; they'd showed up promptly, ready to do their brave duty, but as they had only six story ladders their efforts to bring the fire under control were severely hampered. In the meantime Blanck and Harris had fled to the comparative safety of the building's roof while on the street below Frances Perkins - FDR's future Secretary of Labor - was among those in the crowd watching the tragedy unfold.

No sooner was the fire doused than a firestorm of controversy began to rage in the Press; the catastrophe highlighted several deficiencies of the era, from labour laws to safety codes. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union gained the most political clout from the tragedy, as situations of this nature only serve to prove the shortcomings inherent in unregulated laissez-faire capitalism. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory wasn't the first of its kind, but the outrage it prompted insured that it was one of the last, at least in the United States.

The Asch Building survived the blaze; renamed the Brown Building, it's currently serving as the chemistry building for New York University, having been entered into the National Register of Historic Places and made a National Historical Landmark in 1991, as well as a New York City Landmark in 2003. Two plaques on the front of 23-29 Washington Place commemorate the victims of this terrible event. The fire has served as the basis for both fiction and nonfiction books, as well as poetry, and inspired both a 1979 movie - The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal - and the 1986 musical Rags.

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