The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire – March 25, 1911 Anthony Fitzpatrick Vice-President of Professional Development Services The American Institute for History Education Disclaimer This presentation incorporates a great deal of material from the online resources provided by Cornell University at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/triangle All other original material is the property of the American Institute of History Education. It was a mild Spring day . . . On Saturday, March 25, 1911. That afternoon as several hundred garment workers prepared to head home after a long day of work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Manhattan a cry of “FIRE” rang out . . . But the story begins before March 25th . . . The Gilded Age The time period from the late 1870s until the early 1900s was a time of great industrial development and economic prosperity in the United States. Everyone, however, did not share in that prosperity The term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain in a book where he and his co-author poked fun at a society where men cared only about money. The men represented a culture that appeared gleaming with prosperity, but was rotten beneath the veneer of gold. The uprising of 20,000 The garment manufacturing industry in New York City was one of those areas where workers were not the beneficiaries of prosperity. Overcrowding, poor ventilation and dangerous machinery made their work extremely hazardous. The workers demanded improvements in pay and working conditions. In November of 1909, members of local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union went on strike. Why strike? The strike was called in support of the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the Leirson Company. (a shirtwaist was a woman’s blouse and a fashion necessity for women in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Clara Lemlick While the union membership didn’t originally support a strike, when Clara interrupted Samuel Gompers with these words – opinions changed: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether or not we shall strike. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions . . . I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared – NOW! The Protest Response from the union crowd was tremendous. Over 20,000 workers left their shops and joined the pickets. Women protesters were beaten by police and thugs hired by factory owners. The many who were arrested quickly returned to the picket lines when they were released. Support Mounts! National labor and feminist leaders such as Samuel Gompers and Lillian Wald spoke in support of the strike. Even millionaire JP Morgan’s daughter Anne and President Taft’s daughter Helen sided with the workers. A spirit of unity spread throughout New York City’s garment factories and when a general strike was called in the Fall of 1909. over 20,000 workers (4/5 of them women) joined the picket lines. What had once been a strike limited to 2 companies grew into the first large scale strike of women workers in US History. The RESULT The women won a 52 hour work week. Employers promised to provide supplies. Equal division of work in slack seasons that would hopefully prevent bosses from firing during slow times. SAFETY CONDITIONS WERE NOT IMPROVED AS PART OF THE AGREEMENT A return to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building located just off Washington Square in lower Manhattan. The Asch Building was a new “fireproof” building and considered to be one of the safest in the city. FIRE It was 4:45 pm on Saturday March 25, 1911. That is when the cry of “FIRE” rang across the 8th floor sewing room. Aided by barrels of sewing oil and scraps of cloth, the fire quickly spread. There was no equipment to put out the fire. Workers ran to the stairwells and elevators trying to escape. The Fire Spreads The fire quickly spread to the 9th floor. Workers discovered that one of the 9th floor doors was locked. Nineteen bodies were found piled against that locked door. Other exit doors were built to open inward because there was no room in the stairwells for the doors to open outward. The press of bodies kept them closed. The Fire Escape The only fire escape was located on the courtyard side of the building. It proved inadequate and as a result of being overburdened, collapsed. Many were sent over 85 feet to their deaths. The Elevator The only working elevator made several trips to the 8th floor to rescue as many people as possible. Many workers tried to slide down the elevator cables to safety. Most of them died. Elevator operator Joseph Zito reported coins falling through the slats of the elevator ceiling and blood dripping on the last passengers who made it to safety. Desperation Workers on the 8th and 9th floors quickly discovered they had only two choices – burn to death or jump from the windows. Many chose to jump. An eyewitness reported thinking that bundles of cloth were being thrown out to save the stock, until one bundle turned in the air and he saw that it was a girl who had jumped. Let’s examine some of the materials concerning these events The fire department arrived soon after the alarm was raised. However, they were unable to help those who were trapped. Their ladders only reached the 6th floor and their hoses were unable to reach the top floors. Extinguished The fire department was able to contain the fire quickly. Within 40 minutes of the outbreak, the fire was put out. In that same time, 146 people lost their lives. Most of the victims were women and teenaged girls. The Asch Building WAS fireproof … Its contents were not. The March of 400,000 On April 5, 1911 dawned a dreary and wet day. It was on that day that 400,000 men and women took to the streets of New York City to participate in the funeral procession for 7 workers whose remains were not identified. The Progressive Era (1900s-1920s) The Progressive Era encompassed a wide arena of opportunities to improve the conditions under which American society functioned. A common thread that bound progressives together was a belief that people were not chained to the past and need not be imprisoned by their circumstances. With assistance from a reform-minded and active government, people were capable of bettering their individual conditions and thus, elevating social progress. Public outcry leads to reform - Meetings were held by many organizations to decry working conditions. The tone for change was set at a gathering on April 2 by Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the 1909 Triangle Strike. Doc 4 Unity Union organizers worked to assist those workers and their families who had been impacted by the fire. Working in unison, the relief agencies raised over $30,000 for the cause. The Factory Investigation Commission The Factory Investigation Commission was appointed within a month of the fire to investigate working and safety conditions. Commission members included Francis Perkins, a witness to the fire. Results of Reform Efforts Better fire escapes to be installed Minimum number of exits per floor Fireproof stairwells Automatic sprinkler system Mandatory fire drills Exit doors to open outward Fireproof waste receptacles All elevator shafts to be enclosed Installation of fire alarms Authority given to Fire Marshal to supervise adequacy of exits Authority also given to supervise fire drills. Increased number of labor inspectors Impacted issues of child labor. “March 25,1911 is the day the New Deal began” Francis Perkins US Secretary of Labor 1933-1945 What happened to the Owners? Max Blanck and Isaac Harris received a $10,000 insurance settlement and re-opened the business in a new location one week after the fire. Upon inspection of the new factory that first week, exit doors were found to be blocked. Owners brought to Trial Blanck and Harris were brought to trial. They were tried for negligence concerning whether the knew the doors in the original factory had been locked. They were acquitted of all charges. Huh? Judge Thomas C.T. Crain informed the jury that the key to the case was whether the defendants knew the door was locked: If so, was it locked under circumstances, importing knowledge on the part of these defendants that it was locked? Is so, and margaret Schwartz died because she was unable to pass through, would she have lived if the door had not been locked? On December 27,1911, the jury acquitted both defendants of manslaughter One Jury Member said . . . “I believed the door was locked at the time of the fire. But we couldn’t find them guilty unless we believed the KNEW the door was locked.” Another member of the all-male jury remarked that the women – whom they did not believe were as intelligent as those in other occupations – probably panicked, causing their deaths. And the factory workers? Families of 23 deceased workers filed civil suits against Blanck and Harris. On march 11, 1913 – Blanck and Harris settled the cases. The families received $75 for each of those lost lives. How do we make connections to today? What else have we learned using this event as a case study for the Progressive Era?
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