Guest Author - Vance Rowe
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a literal sweatshop where men, women, and children worked making ladies shirtwaist garments. The factory sat on the 8, 9, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught on fire. Fire inspectors had said the cause of the fire was from someone carelessly tossing a match or a hot cigarette butt, into a bin of scrap cloth, that sat under a table, on the 8th floor.
It was near the end of the work day when a passerby noticed smoke coming from a window on the 8th floor. The passerby ran into the Asch Building and let someone know. There were no alarm systems, no sprinkler systems, and no way to let people know on the 9th floor that there was a fire. There was a phone on the 8th floor and the 10th floor of the building. The workers on the 9th floor never knew about the fire until it arrived there. The cloth, oils from the machines, and the dry wood of the building, fueled the fire and it sped on its way through.
There were plenty of fire exits to get out but the doors were locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks and to prevent theft. A couple of the exit doors were open but when they got to the bottom of the stairs, the exit doors were locked as well, for the same reasons. The elevators were not working either. When the fire department arrived, they got ladders out but the ladders would only go as high as the 7th floor. Employees succumbed due to the fire, smoke inhalation, and 64 of the 146 garment workers that died, died from jumping out of the windows. The fire department had a net out but when four people hit it at the same time, the net broke. 123 of the dead were women while only 23 were men. Most of the women who died were Jewish and Italian immigrants, aged 16 to 23.
The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory led to new legislation, however. Legislation that improved the working conditions and the safety standards for garment factories. This legislation also helped start International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The union fought for better working conditions in sweatshops.
My question is, why does it take a horrible tragedy to get something fixed?
The Asch Building is now known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University. The building has been selected to be a New York City Historical landmark as well as a National Historical Landmark.