The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire, also known as the Triangle Fire, was an infamous industrial disaster that led to major reforms in fire safety, factory procedures, and unionization of garment workers. The fire, which claimed the lives of 146 people, began on the afternoon of 25 March 1911 on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The Triangle Fire is often cited as a terrible example of the horrific conditions in which sweatshop workers labored before the advent of major reforms for the American working class.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was owned by Max Blanc and Isaac Harris, who founded the company to take advantage of the growing trend of long skirts and blouses, or shirtwaists, which became popular in the early part of the 20th century. The Triangle Fire struck a severe blow to both men and their business, which never fully recovered. The factory employed 500 men and women, although the majority of the workers were female, and most of those trapped and killed by the Triangle Fire were women. Most of the employees were illegal immigrants trying to build better lives for themselves in America, and they endured the unpleasant working conditions because they felt they had no other choice.
Before the Triangle Fire, the company was already well known for resisting attempts at unionizing. A massive city-wide strike organized in 1909 originated at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and four months of negotiations by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union finally brought about an agreement, which the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to accept. During the strike, the factory employed scabs and vicious protectors who were later accused of severely beating young strikers.
The Triangle Fire began in the late afternoon, shortly before a change of shifts, in a bin of textile cuttings. The factory was on the upper floors of the ten story Asch building, at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. The Triangle Fire illustrated a fact well known to garment workers already – that most garment factories were potential fire traps, with bins of highly flammable textiles and patterns surrounded by smoking workers and overworked sewing machines that sometimes overheated and caused small fires. In fact, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had already been cited for fire safety concerns.
While fire alarms went off on the eighth and tenth floors, the ninth floor was not warned, and most of the workers on that floor did not survive, trapped by the heat of the Triangle Fire, locked doors, and panic. All of the floors only had one open exit, because the other door was locked, ostensibly to prevent workers from taking breaks, leaving early, or stealing. The fire raced up the stairwell with unlocked doors, effectively trapping workers in the highly flammable workrooms. Many of them jumped out of the upstairs windows or down the elevator shaft, sometimes on fire, in an attempt to escape the heat.
Workers lucky enough to escape to the roof were rescued by employees of a neighboring office building and the fire department, which arrived on the scene very quickly. The owners of the factory escaped to the roof and were later acquitted of wrongdoing in the fire. Labor activists were furious, as were many lawmakers, and the Triangle Fire ultimately resulted in legislation that still governs working conditions in the United States.