It was 101 years ago, on March 25, 1911, that one of the most catastrophic events in the history of American industry occurred, the consequences of which are still highly relevant today.
At the turn of the century, New York City's garment and textile industry employed vast numbers of workers -- mostly immigrants and mostly women. They worked long hours for low wages and had limited choices.
The Triangle Waist Company factory employed hundreds of women who sewed "shirtwaists" (blouses) on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a Greenwich Village building near New York University.
The now infamous fire started toward the end of a Saturday afternoon workday when a bin of cloth scraps caught fire. The alarm was raised and the fire may not have been notable had not several conditions been present: the factory's managers had locked one exit in order to prevent the workers from stealing and the manager with the key to the exit escaped, leaving many workers with no means of egress. Also, months of cloth scraps had accumulated making the factory into a tinderbox. There was no audible alarm system or intercom to warn the other floors of the factory of the inferno.
As flames engulfed the remaining exits, panicked women crowded onto the fire escape, which, unable to hold their collective weight twisted and pulled away from the building. Knowing the were trapped many women chose to leap from the upper stories, plunging to their deaths and creating a horrific panorama.In less than 20 minutes, 146 people had died.
But beyond the sensational nature of this horrific event, why does it still matter? The answer can be found in the aftermath of the fire. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire prompted reforms to labor laws and building codes and mandated fire exits, fire extinguishers, alarm systems and sprinklers, improved working conditions, and shorter working hours.
If I may get a little bit political, I think it's important to remember where we started, before such government regulation. There is a vocal outcry in 2012 against government interference in business, against environmental standards, health insurance mandates and other so-called "big government" measures. But you don't have to look very far into the past to understand what happens when such regulation is absent.
For more information about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire including a plethora of photographs, audio from survivors and other primary sources check out this excellent website, Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, put together by Cornell University's Labor-Management Documentation and Archives for the 100th anniversary.
Copyright 2012 Antiquarianation All Rights Reserved