One night last week, J and I watched an American Experience documentary about Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 workers (most of them young women) were killed. J had never heard of the tragedy—I’m guessing many people haven’t—but about a year ago I’d read David von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, which was one of the sources cited in the program. Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire marked a watershed moment in the American labor movement, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the fight for workers’ rights and workplace safety: a tragedy so atrocious, the public came together to demand legislative change.
The Triangle fire happened at a pivotal moment in American history: had it not been an accident believed to have been started by a wayward cigarette butt tossed into a bin of fabric scraps, you might say the fire was perfectly timed. A few years before the fire, factory workers across New York City—most of them young immigrant women, or “factory girls”—organized a strike for better working conditions, and workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were at the forefront of this movement. Although the strike resulted in slightly better wages, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory refused to allow its workers to unionize, thereby robbing them of any lasting bargaining power. Because the strike had made textile factories and the rights of workers into front-page news, however, the 1911 fire was the culminating factor that galvanized a horrified public into doing something to protect the rights of New York’s most vulnerable workers. The strike had made New Yorkers aware of the plight of factory girls, and the fire corroborated how bad workplace conditions truly were.
The Triangle fire took place near quitting time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, when crowds of passersby were walking to and from nearby Washington Square Park. The Triangle factory resided on the top three floors of a high-rise, trapping workers who thronged stairways that were choked with smoke and doors that had been locked by management to prevent employee theft. Horrified witnesses thronged the streets below the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, waiting for fire crews to arrive as smoke billowed from the building and frightened workers clung to a single poorly-constructed fire escape and crowded around flaming windows. When fire crews arrived, their ladders were not long enough to reach victims on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, leaving nothing for firefighters and bystanders to do but watch as the fire escape collapsed and workers started to jump out of smoking windows, their clothes, bodies, and hair streaming fire.
It was this image of burning girls falling or leaping from windows that turned public sentiment. Suddenly the poor, unwashed immigrants whom so many native New Yorkers had previously reviled became human: our own daughters, wives, and sisters. Because it happened on a Saturday afternoon, the tragedy, which killed 146 people (123 of them women) in less than twenty minutes, was witnessed by crowds of people, including a United Press reporter who filed a news report describing the sickening thud of burning bodies landing on pavement. For those who weren’t there to witness the fire in person, the newspapers printed gruesome photographs of smoldering bodies piled on sidewalks, and those who didn’t believe the photos could examine the bodies at a makeshift morgue setup on Charities Pier, where open coffins were displayed in an attempt to identify victims.
Although largely forgotten today, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is fascinating because it is one of those galvanizing moments in history when public sentiment changed overnight. Regardless of what New Yorkers had previously believed about teenage immigrant workers, unions, or factory working conditions, in the aftermath of the fire there was a widespread outcry for legislation to regulate working hours, child labor, and workplace safety. Sometimes I wonder what it would take to make similar sweeping changes in our society today: do we have to actually see gruesome photos of children killed in school shootings to turn public sentiment away from gun interests, for instance? The media in 1911 was infinitely simpler than that in our wired, networked, and perpetually plugged-in world, so why is it that a series of sympathetic newspaper reports and a dozen grainy photos had more of an impact than all the Tweets, Instagram photos, and 24-hour news reports of our day and age?
The photos illustrating today’s post come from “Think Pink,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.