The March 25, 1911 deaths by fire of 146 mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant garment workers still haunt New York City labor unions and elected officials to this day.
The fire was so devastating because Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and fire exits, not wanting their sewing machine operators—who earned $7 to $12 for around 60 hours of work per week—to have any opportunity to potentially steal garments from the factory or even slip outside to take a work break.
Workers were locked in and when the fire started and blinding smoke left them no way to get around their long work tables and scattered chairs. Trapped by flames that local firefighters did not have ladders long enough to reach, garment workers resorted to jumping from the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the building. They landed on the sidewalk outside, where they died.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire led to important workplace safety reforms and stricter regulations under the New York City Department of Buildings. Its legacy helped galvanize labor organizing around the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
But when the Triangle Shirtwaist fire happened, it was as if nothing had occurred as far as the Amsterdam News was concerned, says Janette Gayle, assistant professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. One newspaper in the Midwest ran a short article about a Black elevator operator who saved a few of the female workers by bringing them down in an elevator, but the AmNews, which had started publishing in December of 1909, did not dedicate much coverage to the tragedy.
“It’s part of what I talked about in my book,” said Dr. Gayle, author of the forthcoming, “Sewing Change: Black Dressmakers and Garment Workers and the Struggle for Rights in Early Twentieth Century New York City.”
“There were but a handful of Black women in the garment industry at the time. I speculate on how those women might have felt because the fire directly impacted their workplace.”
Initially, garment workers were mostly European immigrants, notes Dr. Gayle. “At that time, they had really excluded Black women from the garment workforce. There were a smattering, I mean really a smattering of Black workers: I think the number is like 11 out of 30,000 women or so. And that really didn’t change until around 1920, right after World War I.”
The garment industry was mostly operated by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who employed Yiddish and later Italian-speaking migrants on their factory floors. Black garment workers weren’t a real presence in the garment industry until the 1920s, after World War I took a toll on immigration and ushered Blacks in for employment.
By that time, the aftereffects of the Shirtwaist Factory fire had taken hold.
Public opinion had been galvanized and safety regulations were put in place for garment shops. What had been a largely unregulated, fly-by-night kind of business saw the state government begin to take a hard look at workday procedures.
Fire safety plans and fire escapes became a requirement at many buildings that had previously had none. “Of course, this took a while: you’re talking about thousands of shops, little, tiny shops that were very difficult to regulate,” Dr. Gayle said. “In 1925, reports still show a tremendous amount of regulations that are being ignored. Something as simple as doors that should open out. They opened in so that the women were locked in and could not get out. And the doors were locked on top of that; not just closed but locked because factory owners did not want unionizers to come in and try and unionize the women and they also did not want the women to take unregulated bathroom breaks.
“It was really a sweatshop situation. This was a sweatshop in the middle of New York City. Things were grim.”
The lives lost in that sweatshop are now memorialized by a new 9-story high Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire memorial located on what is now NYU’s Brown Building, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. Designed by Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo, the memorial is dedicated to remembering the plight of workers. It “consists of a stainless-steel ribbon that cascades vertically down the corner of the Brown Building (23-29 Washington Place) from the windowsill of the 9th floor, marking the location where most of the victims of the Triangle fire died or jumped to their death,” Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition President Mary Anne Trasciatti notes in an article about the site: “The steel ribbon is etched with patterns and textures from a 300-foot long cloth ribbon, formed from individual pieces of fabric, donated and sewed together by hundreds of volunteers. … The names of all 146 workers who died will be laser-cut through these panels, allowing light to pass through.”