Before I get started with today’s history fact, I want to let you know that I am participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge for April 2014.  At the top of my blog you will see a page I have dedicated to this challenge which begins on April 1st.  No need to subscribe separately as these postings will hit my home page just like all my postings.  If you read my blog regularly, the only change you will see for the month of April is that the historical facts are not based on the date but based on the letter of the alphabet (yes even X).  26 postings each Monday through Saturday.  Sundays are a break day in the challenge but you will still see my date oriented postings on Sundays.

I first heard this story through a television movie several years ago.  To me it seems that greed was often an underlying factor is major disasters and certainly in this one.  On March 25, 1911, one of the worst industrial disasters in American history occurred.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burns down, killing 145 workers. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster on March 25, 1911

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911). The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster on March 25, 1911

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the large Triangle Shirtwaist factory were known as the "Shirtwaist Kings." They immigrated to the United States from Russia and had made a fortune manufacturing "Gibson girl" style blouses.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the large Triangle Shirtwaist factory were known as the “Shirtwaist Kings.” They immigrated to the United States from Russia and had made a fortune manufacturing “Gibson girl” style blouses.

Poor conditions defined this sweatshop.  The factory floors were cramped spaces lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English.   There were four elevators but only one was operational so only 12 people could descend at a time.  There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

The flimsy fire escape ladder descended close to the building forcing those fleeing to struggle through flames and past warped iron window shutters stuck open across their path. Sections of ladder which ended two stories above the ground, twisted and collapsed under the weight of workers trying to escape the fire killing many who had chosen it as their lifeline.

The flimsy fire escape ladder descended close to the building forcing those fleeing to struggle through flames and past warped iron window shutters stuck open across their path. Sections of ladder which ended two stories above the ground, twisted and collapsed under the weight of workers trying to escape the fire killing many who had chosen it as their lifeline.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

How did a 'fireproof' building become a fire trap? This model represents problems that existed before and during the fire that caused so many people to lose their lives on the 9th floor.

How did a ‘fireproof’ building become a fire trap? This model represents problems that existed before and during the fire that caused so many people to lose their lives on the 9th floor.

FIRE HAZARDS

1. Locked door to the stair well

2. Rusty fire escape that collapsed

3. Cluttered work spaces

4. Short ladders only reached 6th floor

5. Not enough water pressure

6. Long wooden tables became obstacles

7. Wicker baskets full of scraps

8. Oily floors spread the fire quickly

9. Fire nets failed to catch jumpers

10. No sprinkler system, only pails of water

11. Flammable barrel of oil

12. Boxes crowding the exit

13. Lack of a required third staircase

Blanck and Harris’ were no friends to the worker.  There anti-worker policies were notorious. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris’ company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

nternational Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters’ ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building’s top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers’ union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

Cornell University has a website dedicated to this story.  I recommend this site http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/supplemental/3dmodel.html

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4 responses

  1. Miss Andi says:

    Glad you joined the A to Z Challenge, love your blog and looking forward to the posts!
    I’m gonna post about “Music is everywhere” in April and part of it will be some interviews (not every day) with some of the participants. Would you like to be one of those? It’d be just a couple of questions to keep it short and a link to your blog. If you’re interested, drop me an email to musicfanandrea at gmail (com) and we’ll take it from there.
    See you in April either way!

    Like

  2. jessjennison says:

    What an interesting idea for a blog! I’m looking forward to reading through this. Good luck with the A to Z Challenge. It’s nice to find someone else doing something historical.

    Like