The tragedy of the triangle shirtwaist factory fire sparked the uprising in the fight for better shape of the working environment when 145 of the innocent were killed. It was that it began in a small rag bin, a simple target for a fire in a building with locked fire escape routes, unoperational elevators, and no ventilation, that initiated the fight for worker safety.
Although most hand-made garment businesses have been made irrelevant in the U. S. ue to industrialization and mass production today, the tragedy of the Triangle Waist Factory fire should be included in next year’s edition of textbooks because it sparked a revolution for labor unions that succeeded in the fight for better working conditions. March 25 was an early morning start for some 600 workers in the Triangle Waist Factory, like any other work day, until 4:45 p. m. rolled around and one of the most tragic fires broke out in New York, 1911. This factory has employed hundreds of women, mostly teenagers, who did not speak any English.
The fire had allegedly started in a small rag bin that the women used for work on the eighth floor of the Triangle Waist Factory building. Their first instinct was an easy escape through the elevators, however, it was to their disappointment after crowding the long narrow hallway to reach it, only one out of the four were operational at the time of the fire. Thomas Gregory, an elevator man, ran into the building on his way home. He made three trips in the one operational elevator, taking about 15 people each trip, until it broke down.
A New York Times article a few days from the incident describes Gregory’s story, “The upper floors crowded with frenzied men and women, who fought to get into the elevator and clawed his face and neck” (New York Times, 1911). There was an attempt to escape through the stairways leading to the street, however, one was locked from the outside. The owners say it was designed to prevent robbers from getting inside the factory. Even without the fire and the hysteria of the incident, it would have taken hours for all of the workers to exit from the building. Other victims of the fire resorted to jumping to their deaths out of the windows.
Benjamin Levy, one of the first men to arrive on the scene of the fire says, “I only saw one man jump. All the rest were girls. They stood on the windowsills tearing their hair out in the handfuls and then they jumped” (Levy, 1911). Once the fire department arrived, not only did the falling bodies prevent them from extinguishing the fire from down below but their ladder only reached seven floors, the fire was on the eight. The fire was over within 18 minutes with 145 total dead; 49 burned or suffocated, 36 in the elevators, 58 from jumping to their deaths, and a 2 more from later injuries.
After this tragedy struck many innocent men and women of New York, the jury of the case failed to charge the owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, with manslaughter. Despite the case being acquitted in 1914 and the owners getting away with their crime, it was their ways of trying to save money that backfired and costed the lives of over a hundred workers in that fire. During the Progressive era, industries struggled with the battle between safe and fast service and, while it costed many men, women, and children their lives, fast service always triumphed.
Due to the expansion of industrial manufacturing, there was a surplus of jobs in the manufacturing businesses which made it easy to take advantage of anyone looking for work. The simple task of repeating one action over and over was found preferable over other jobs. Many employees found the regulation and consistency of factory jobs better than other lines of work. At the turn of the 19th century, the needed income for a comfortable lifestyle was at least $600, while the average working woman made about $400.
Before the incident of the fire, women suffered the worst of the working environment with even lower wages than men and even longer hours. A History. com article reports that most women in the progressive era “made only about $15 per week working 12 hours a day, every day” (History. com staff, 1911). The lack of care for these women was all in effort to save money for these companies but not save the lives of working men, women, and children. These women of the Triangle Waist Factory dealt with cramped spaces and rows of dangerous sewing machines that put them in potential harm every day of employment.
Only a few years earlier was the publishing of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which regarded the detailed story of meat distribution in America. However, instead of regarding the poor working environment described, readers paid more attention to the reformation of health and safety regulations on the food. Only a few strikes were initiated towards these issues before 1911 because no incident, such as the Triangle Waist Factory fire, had sparked such motivation into the eyes of the average working individual.
Despite such horrible working conditions within the early 20th century, the U. S. has since upgraded and further developed our nation’s factory environment that should be considered a great accomplishment in our history. After this tragedy, a light bulb turned on above the heads of thousands of the working class. In 1911, the state of New York created a factory investigating commission to study safety, sanitation, wages, hours, and child labor in sweatshops. Between 1911 and 1914, 36 new laws were enacted that reformed the state labor code.
In 1912, laws that regarded fire drills, automatic sprinklers, and the physical examination of children before employment were passed by the Legislature. By 1913, laws that regarded a fire alarm signal system, limited hours of labor for women, night work of women in factories, cleanliness of workrooms, accident prevention, and elevators were also passed. After this, more specific laws were discussed among the government and passed such as sanitation, hours of labor of women in mercantile establishments limited to 50 hours a week, and the hours of labor of some teenagers reduced from 54 hours to 48 hours.
The factory fire did not only upset the workers of the early 1900s, however, this tragedy rippled throughout the century to today at the hands of unions, fighters, marchers, and strikers. Unions like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union continue to fight for their rights as working women in America and help to maintain the current system of regulation of suitable working conditions. An article on this incident at Cornell describes the National Women’s Trade Union League that “became the most vocal and effective champion of protective legislation for working women” (Cornell staff, 2011).
Most of the laws created as a result of the Triangle Waist Factory fire are still enabled and enforced today to prevent a tragic fire like that again and is much safer due to the lesson learned from this carelessness in 1911. The tragedy of the Triangle Waist Factory fire should be included in next year’s edition of textbooks, despite it being pushed away by mass production and industrialization, because it blurred lines between the meaning of fast and safe service and united our industries with our workers to create a better working environment for our American working class.
This drastic change in working conditions has furthered America’s development in industries. Although manual labor in most industries have been severely reduced due to technological advancements within the past few decades, the changes made to our working conditions affected all of America, socially, politically, and economically. Hopefully, technology today will be able to further develop our society in the future to the amount that the tragedy of the Triangle Waist Factory fire did in 1911.