Fashion History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
On March 26, 1911, a fire quickly spread on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. The tragic loss of 146 people horrified the public and led to an increased awareness of safety measures and worker's rights.
When fire followed fashion
In the early part of the 20th century, the concept of safety in the workplace was thought, by many to be a radical, if not Socialist ideal. Factory and mill workers in urban areas toiled for long hours and for low pay in poorly lit, often dangerous environments.
In 1911, one hundred workers died on the job every day. Mines collapsed. Ships sank. Men perished in vats of molten steel. Trains wrecked and arms were caught in machinery. Few safety regulations left people unprotected in dangerous workplaces. Businesses owners railed against government interference believing that safety precautions cut into the profits of the people who made America work.
Yet in the 1880s, some New England cotton mills had automatic sprinklers. By 1911 some mills in Philadelphia had enclosed fireproof stairways, fire doors, and firewalls.
But not in Manhattan. In Manhattan, fires were the order of the day, fairly common. Factories were not encouraged to attend to safety matters. Safe buildings meant lower premiums and less income for insurance agencies. Insurance brokers made more money selling higher premiums. They were not about to make a noise about safety.
Fire often followed the fashion of the day. When feathers suddenly went out of style, three feather factories burned. When the shirtwaist started to decline in popularity, ten mills burned whereas six had burned during the previous three years. But garment factories easily caught fire; the flimsy fabrics, rags, and remnants, tissue patterns were all so incendiary.
A shirtwaist was a tailored blouse that could be nearly as plain as a man's shirt or decorated with pleats, ruffles, tucks of lace, and ribbons. Worn with a bell-shaped skirt hemmed just above the ankle, it was a garment staple of the time.
An upswept hairdo completed the look of the modern young woman. Exemplified by the Gibson Girl, a fictional character in the cartoons and sketches of Charles Dana Gibson, the new ideal was clean cut, intelligent, energetic, strong, and fun. Factories turned out thousands of shirtwaists popular across class lines.
Garment Production in New York City
At the time Manhattan was a huge garment producer. New, high-ceilinged loft spaces employed thousands of young immigrants. Young women operated sewing machines while men cut the patterns. This new type of garment factory replaced the old sweatshops of the late 19th century.
While today we think of sweat shops as large, crowded production areas filled with low paid workers, the original sweat shops were located in tenement apartments. With a small capital investment for a few sewing machines and rent, a boss employed immigrants for piece work. Working 12 - 15 hours a day, six days a week, piece workers were often denied their promised wages when the boss, on pay-day, charged workers for thread as well as for the use of sewing machines. Child labor was rampant.
The new, larger factories offered a better, brightly lit environment with the opportunity for workers to socialize. The loft space allowed for large banks of electric sewing machines and enabled all aspects of the business, from the initial cuts to distribution, to be conducted under one roof. Half of all Manhattan garment workers labored on floors that were above the reach of fire fighting equipment. Large rooms were filled with incendiary materials such a tissue paper, loose thread, and cotton scraps.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
At 4:40 on March 26, 1911, just before closing time, a scrap bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. The alarms didn’t work properly, and the fire spread quickly. Hanging sheets of tissue paper (for patterns) ignited and fell into bins of fabric scraps. The thin, cotton scraps caught fire and floated up, igniting other areas of the room. Flames shot up an air shaft and roared up the stairs as workers scrambled for safety.
In-house fire hoses that were hooked up to rooftop water tanks produced no water. People crowded a narrow doorway purposely made a tight squeeze so that departing workers’ purses could be searched for stolen ribbon, a piece of lawn or netting. Work tables blocked access to a flimsy fire escape that ended just above a basement skylight. People climbed over the tables in a mad rush for the narrow metal ladder. But the fire escape collapsed under the weight of frantic workers, killing over 20.
Some crowded to the Washington Street exit but it was locked to prevent workers from sneaking off for unauthorized breaks. Fire ran up the air shaft. Smoke roiled up the stairs. Within minutes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory became an inferno.
People ran up to the roof until the stairs were engulfed in flames. Others dropped eight floors to the safety nets held by firefighters. There weren’t enough nets, and the nets they used were unable to stand up to a body falling from the 8th story. Heat crazed workers, instinctively seeking fresh air jumped from the building. Young girls jumped out of windows, arms entwined, unable to bear the smoke and heat. Terrified people rained down on the sidewalks of New York, thirty at once, girls who barely made enough money to cover their rent.
The last exits closed off at 4:52.
The last person fell at 4:57.
One hundred and forty-six people died in those few minutes because the doors were blocked, or locked. Estimates claim that 200 people could have been cleared from the 8th floor in 7 minutes. But you couldn’t have a factory girl sneak off to the bathroom or snitch a scrap of ribbon.
People noticed. 100,000 showed up at the makeshift morgue on Charities Pier. Maybe the Socialists weren’t radical fanatics after all. The idea of safety regulation, that government could demand a safe working environment was no longer a cause endorsed by the lunatic fringe. Laws were enacted to ensure workplace safety. Too late for the 146 souls at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. But the tragic deaths of those workers led to new safety regulations and the concept that working people were not expendable commodities, but human beings.