It’s hard to believe that one business, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, employed 600 people in 1911 to make one item – a shirtwaist – a tailored women’s shirt that was blousey at the top and cinched around the waist and ribs. The company operated on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building (now the Brown Building) in New York City. About 500 of the workers were women aged 16-23 and the sole providers for their families. Many of the workers had it rougher than others. Instead of being employed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, they were hired by subcontractors and paid just half of already extremely low wages.
The term “sweatshops” grew out of the conditions workers were forced to endure in garment factories during this period with strikes and unions beginning to become more prevalent in women-dominated industries.
Today, at 4:40pm, close your eyes and try to imagine a scenario that took place exactly at that time 100 years ago.
It’s quitting time and employees are packing up. Cotton remnants of cutaways had piled up since being cleaned out more than two months earlier. Some say it was a smoldering cigarette improperly disposed of in a trash bin that started the fire, but nothing was ever conclusive. What is known is that in just 18 minutes, 129 women and 17 men would be burned alive or jump to their death trying to escape the blaze. The list of victims is haunting.
The city was outraged. Brown coffins were laid out along the twenty-sixth street pier in order for families to identify their loved ones. Company owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with first and second degree manslaughter. They were exonerated in just two hours of jury deliberation during their trial in December 1911. They would later be ordered to pay $75 per victim who had died during a civil trial two years later. Their insurance company paid them $400 in compensation for each casualty, so I guess they made money on the deaths.
In the aftermath, women led the call for justice and reform – labor union leader Rose Schneiderman called for the women to unionize; Rose Freedman, a survivor of the fire became a lifelong crusader for worker safety; and Frances Perkins, a well-connected and wealthy woman, was having tea with a friend nearby when they raced to the fire after hearing the engine bells. So moved by the tragedy, she would work tirelessly to reform conditions for women and children serving first as Executive Secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and later as the Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The appointment was the first for a woman to a cabinet post.
Reforms were hastened by the deaths of so many in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but eventually, like any other tragedy, the people, the loss of life, the disgust fades from memory and reformers die without others taking up their work.