25 March 2011

The Triangle Waist Company fire

A mural by Ernest Fiene representing the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, at the High School of Fashion Industries NYC (courtesy Triangle Fire open archive).

4:45pm eastern time today marks the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company in a building now called the Brown building at 29 Washington Place in Manhattan. The fire's been passed on and remembered as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, so named for the shirtwaists they made there. Shirtwaist was the term people used 100 years ago for a blouse.

The fire broke out near the end of the workday on a Saturday. The factory occupied three floors of what was then called the Asche Building in Greenwich Village. It's thought that a careless cigarette or match started a conflagration that swept through the three floors of the factory in minutes.

146 people died in that fire and most of them were immigrant women between the ages of 15 and 24. They died from a lack of a fire code, a lack of regulation regarding working conditions and from the fact that the owners of the factory kept the doors locked to guard against internal theft.

Many of the people who died that day died because they jumped from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors to escape the flames.

The people who died that day died horrifically but they didn't die in vain. The International Ladies' Garment Workers Union and a host of building codes were born of that fire. If you work in an office, the sprinkler system in your building is there because those people died to get it for you.

That 15-year-old kids no longer work in factories in the west is the result of the labor movement and as of last week, a legislator in Missouri introduced legislation to eliminate many child labor laws. I don't need to tell you her party affiliation.

Revisionists seem to believe that "market forces" would have made all of the advances of the Labor Movement and the New Deal on their own but they fail to see that those same "market forces" brought about such things as child labor in the first place.

So as union busting becomes the new fad in state capitols all across the land, take a moment to remember those 146 souls who died behind locked doors in an unsafe building 100 years ago. Take a moment too, to learn about the Triangle Waist Company fire. It's an important part of US history and one that can never get enough attention.


  1. Thank you for this, Paul. The Triangle Fire story has always haunted me. It's more poignant than ever this year. Timely, important message.

  2. And here we are in 2011 with a Tea Party governor in Maine who is rumbling about repealing child labor laws and who wants to remove a mural in the state Labor Dept that depicts the history of the labor struggles in Maine because it makes local business leaders "uncomfortable"! Thanks for this post Paul!

  3. Mark, I was just going to comment on what is happening in Maine as well. Confusing that Maine and Wisconsin -- the two most progressive states for workers' rights -- have been successful in installing Tea Party governors who are ripping these rights apart. If they can fall, the other 48 are easy? Is that the plan? Horrifying if it is. Especially when they start gutting teachers, the book-learnin' folk be next.

  4. I toured two sink factories when I was in Germany last January. The people who worked in that factory were well-paid members of Germany's middle class and they had jobs in a factory because Germany decided that having a manufacturing base is important. Germany made preserving that manufacturing base a national priority and so the German landscape is dotted with factories where people make things and earn middle class wages. The owners of those factories manage to make money, and a lot of it, despite the labor and environmental regulations that US businesses claim make doing business impossible.

    What pass for national priorities in the US these days makes me scratch my head. The promise of upward mobility has been supplanted by the promise of a $4 T-shirt at Wal-Mart.

  5. Thanks for writing this post. Incredibly timely with the current political climate. I keep getting Tea Party carp in my e-mail in-box, and I keep thinking "How the h@ll did I get on this list?" At the same time it's nice to know what the other side is thinking for quick rebuttals.

    On a totally unrelated note, I gave you the Liebster Blog Award. It's a blog love award given to blogs with less than 300 followers. Pop over grab the award, and hand it out to whomever you choose.

  6. I don't envy you for the mailing lists you're on. I don't think my blood pressure could handle getting that nonsense delivered to me every day.

    Thanks for the award!

  7. Thanks for spelling this out for people, Paul. So many love to hate on regulation, & forget the reasons why regulations come into being in the first place. Now that our lovely Florida legislature has deregulated about 20 professions (including interior design), I guess we'll have to wait for some horrific event to occur to make people rethink their position. But in the meantime, there will be so much more competition and growth! (and in case my sarcasm isn't apparent, please insert sarcasm inflection on my last statement.) The banana republic of south Florida has spread statewide. Caveat emptor.

  8. And they're just getting started. This is going to be four very long years. We need another Lawton Chiles.

  9. Awesome post. This was all over the local news this morning. Great to see the history and implications.

  10. Thank you for this wonderfully poignant post. There are reasons the USA has such building codes and it is frightening to know those codes and the reasons behind them (such as your example) when traveling abroad. Many countries do not share such HSW building codes and often have doors locked with keys from the inside and bars on windows, all in the name of security. Scary.

  11. good post...as I was reading Tom's blog post about this I so badly wanted to leave a comment about politics but thought better of it as I didn't want to turn his blog into a battle zone...but very glad you brought it up!!! workers safety is yet another reason we need unions..

  12. I live in Maine and believe me, Paul LePage is not the most popular person in Southern Maine. His stance of the mural is preposterous...it seems to be coming down solely at the behest of a letter of complain from a 'Secret Admirer'!! This is a working class guy, the eldest of 18 children, who left home at 12 and lived on the streets of Lewiston, Me. I imagine that some of his nearest and dearest were factory workers and benefited from Labor Laws. How quickly the newly minted mighty forget their roots!!

  13. Thanks guys. Maureen: It's impossible to think about that fire and the social forces at work in 1911 and not get political. The US is collapsing from within and it's heartbreaking to see.

    Anne: The events in Maine would be comical if they weren't so symptomatic of a huge problem. The teabagger movement in the US is as irrational as it is dangerous.

    Lisa: It is scary. Are building codes next on the list of the lunatic right's targets?

    Emily: Thanks. The lessons from that fire are always poignant but this year they're particularly so.


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