Figure 1.--As historian David Von Drehle explains, the Traiange Shrirt Waist Factory Fire changed America. The sight of hard-working young women jumping out windows to their death could not be stomached even by the most hard-hearted. Most of the women were young Jewish or Italian immigrants,some as young as 14. The owners pocketed the indsurance money and were soon back in business. They tried to avoid paying even pitiful sums to the families. Source: Tammiment Institute Library, University of New York
American workers in the 19th and early 20th century labored in unsafe workplaces with no or little effort by the government to protect them. When one thinks of industrial accidents and unsafe work places, we often think of dangerous mines, steel mills, meat packing plants. The best known industrial accident in America was the fire at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City where girls and young women were laboring for minimal wages to help their families survive. Child labor was not a rare exception, but a major component of the industrial workforce. Girls as young as 14 died in the Fire. The fire killed 146 mostly immigrant workers. The fire had an enormous impact on America. Not only did legislation follow to protect workers, but the Fire in many ways helped lay the foundation for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. FDR's Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins was later to say that March 25, 1911 was "the day the New Deal began."
American workers in the 19th and early 20th century labored in unsafe workplaces with no or little effort by the government to protect them. When one thinks of industrial accidents and unsafe work places, we often think of dangerous mines, steel mills, meat packing plants. The best known industrial accident in America was the fire at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City where girls and young women were laboring for minimal wages to help their families survive. This is the only industrial accident that most Americans can name. Child labor was not a rare exception, but a major component of the industrial workforce.
The Triangle Waist Company was not a sweatshop as we think of it today. It was in fact the largest manufactuer of waists in New York and it was located in a relatively new building. The factory was located on the on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the building in Greenwich Village. There was virtually no attention being given to saftey. Fire prevtion equipment cost money. The factory had large quantities fabric (a highly flameable material) as well as rags and rubbish piled throughout the three floors. Even worse, the fire escape was locked. This was a measure to ensure that the workers would not take breaks or stealing fabric and waist. They were searched by guards as they exited the building after work.
Most of the employees were girls and young women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women. Many of the Jewish women were immigrants from Russia where anti-Semetic pogroms had driven many Jews to flee. Russian Jews poured into Ameruica and came to be the dominant cultural element in Jewish immigration. Girls as young as 14 worked at the factory. They were almost all immigrants because they had little options, but to work for the low wages offered.
The full story of the Triangle Waist Factory Fire is deeply imbedded in American immigration politics. We can not fully discuss this here, but readers may want to consult the information we are developing on immigration in America.
The garment workers in 1909 launched a strike that helped create the Intermational Lady Garment Worker's Union (ILGWU). About 200 young women had tried to join the ILGWU and had been fired. The result proved to be one of the most important strikes in Aerican history. The defiant women staged a strike and were soon joined by others. The owners hired thugs to beat the women. This caused more workers to go on strike which eventually was joined by 20,000 women--the largest stike ever cinducted by women in America. Interestingly, the strike was supported by some rich society women, a factor in reventing the full use if the police in breaking the strike. Among these society women were: Anne Morgan (daughter of arch capitalust J. P. Morgan), Alva Belmont, Henry Morgenthau, and Helen Taft (President William Howard Taft's daughter). They joined with the garment workers on the picket lines. Here they faced arrest and rough treatment by the police and strike breakers. The impavt was, however, to temper police action. Policemen were not to anxious to find that they had roughed up a prominent person who might take them to court. These women also provide bail money for arrested strikers. In addition they monitred the courts and brought charges against especially brutal police officers. Some of the society women involved here have particularly interesting biographies. Anne Morgan is notable for her work with relief programs to France during and after World Wars I and II. Few women led a more coloful life than Alva Belmont. She married a granson son of Cornelius Vanderbilt and shook up New York social life. Then after divorcing Vanderbilt and arranging the marriage of her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough, she married another millionaire--Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. The marriage set in motion a craze for wealthy Americans to marry impoverished English nobels. (This was the insspiration for Edith Wharton's The Bucanners.) Belmont went on to play a prominent role in the movement for women's rights in America. The Triangle Waist Company was one of the principal targets of the strike. The owners were Max Blank and Issac Harris. They helped organize the owners to resist the ILGWU. They finally coaxed the workers back with higher wages and concessions on working hours, but refused to recognize the union. [Von Drehle] Even so the ILGWU proved to be one of the most important labor unions in America.
Disaster struck at 4:45 pm on Sturday March 25, 1911. No one knows what set the fire off, perhaps a match or cigarette. Within minutes a fire began feeding on all the flamable materials. Many of the worker managed to escape. Hundreds of the company's workers found themselves trapped on the 9th floor because the fire escape was locked. Some managed to get to another fire escape, but it collapsed. The carnage was apauling. Some died in the fire. Some to slide down the elevator cable, but could not maintain their grip. Some girls with their dressed ablaze jumped to thir deaths from the windows. There was something particularly horrible about seeing girls driven to jump out the windows and plummet to their deaths. The press reports were horific and hear rending. There were accounts of girls jumoing, their hair abalze. One account describes a man helping girls on to a ledge "as if he was helping them onto a steet car rather than into eternity". One girl turned to kiss him before jumping. He then climed on to the ledge and followed her. A reporter described the horifying sound of a human body falling nine storie and hitting the pavement. In all 146 girls and young women died.
Nearly as shocking is that the oner at mnagers of the fctory ot off with virtually no punishment. There were no jail sentences or fines. In fact they had broken no laws. There ere no laws protecting woirkers. There were no even any fire saftey laws. The company paid some of the families $75.
The tragedy caused a demand for action and an that the city's thousands of factories be inspected. New York since the 1860s had been run by the Democratic Tammany Hall political machine. Tammany Hall secured the votes of immigrant groups by helping them find jobs and providing other services. It was also known for it coruption. While Tammmany helped immigrants, it sided with business groups that opposed ny kind of government regulation, evemn saftey regulations. The Triangle fire caused a public outrage that forced Tammany to change. Tammy during the early 20th century was run by Charlie Murphy (1902-24). He faced a major problem. He grew up in a New York dominated by the Irish and Germans, yet in the 890s there was a major influx of new immigrants, especially Easern European Jews and Italians. (Notice that many of the girls and young women killed in the fire were Jews and Italians.) Charles F. Murphy managed Tammeny's shift to emcompass the needs of these new immigrants. After the Triange Fire, Tammany began to endorse a range of progressive reforms. [Von Drehle] This was to have a huge impact on the Democratic party. Two future Democratic stalwarts, Robert Wagner and Al Smith were to come from Charley Murphy's Tammany Hall. Notably, perhaps the most important mayor of New York was Fiorello LaGuardia, half Italian and half Jewish.
New York State set up a Factory Investigating Commission was founded. It was headed by important Tammany politicians -- State Senator Robert Wagner and State Assembly Speaker Al Smith< the investigation took 3 years. The final report included 60 recommendations and most were quickly implemented by both laws and regulations. The innovations included automatic sprinklers in tall buildings (over seven storie), hiring more fire inspectors, instututing a 54-hour work week for women, and a variey of regulations on lighting, ventilation, washrooms, and dangerous equipment.
The Triangle Fire had a much greater impact on America than just saftey regulations. The fire had an enormous impact on America. The Triangle Fire in many ways committed Tammany and eventually the Democratic Party to progressive reforms and urban liberalism. This was the mileau in which Franklin Roosevelt began his political career. It was the New York in in which he was elected as governor in 1928. Thus Triangle Fire in many ways helped lay the foundation for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. [Von Drehle] FDR's Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins was later to say that March 25, 1911 was "the day the New Deal began." While changes in government-regulation of the workplace is most often sited as the most important outcome of the fire, the impact on the Democratic Party is in effect by far the most important impact.
The Democratic Party which dominated American politics in the first half of the 19th century became a minority part after the Civil War (1861-65). In the election of 1864, many Americans were shocked when the Party led by General McClellan advocated ending the War by allowing the South to secceed and repealing the Emancipation Proclamation. In the subsequent 50 years, the Democrats until the Republican Party split in 1912, succeeded in electing only one president, Grover Cleveland. The Republicans referred to them as the party of "Rum, Rome, and Rebellion". Despite support from urban immigrants, the party was also very conservative. The Democratic Party is today considered the progressive or liberal party in American politics. This metamorphisis in many ways began with the Triangle Waist Factory Fire and Charley Murphy's shift of Tammeney Hall to actually address the real needs of Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This is what Francis Perkins meant when she said the fire was the beginning of the New Deal.
The grusome images of the girls killed in the fire or terrible to look at. Readers may be interested in what their home life was like. We do not have photographs of the actual Triangle girls at home. We do have a photogragh of an immigrant family living in a tenament doing piece work about 1910 which may be a useful reference.
Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire (1962).
Von Drehle, David. Triangl: The Fire that Changed America (Atlantic Monthly, 2003).
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