2011 is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in which 146 young garment workers, mostly daughters of Jewish and Italian families from the nearby Lower East Side, lost their lives. The fire inspired efforts to advance worker safety and improve working conditions through the passage of progressive laws and the organizing of strong unions. The building where the fire took place (part of New York University since 1929) has been the site of regular commemorations since the 50th anniversary of the fire in 1961.
The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory broke out on March 25, 1911, in the former Asch Building at the corner of Greene St. and Washington Place—now named the Brown Building and part of NYU’s Silver Center complex (which is also home to the Grey Art Gallery). It quickly spread throughout the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors, which were home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. With exits either blocked, inadequate, or dysfunctional, only some of the workers managed to escape; others climbed out the windows, leaping to their deaths, or perished on the factory floor.
An extra element of tragedy is reflected in the fact that the fire could have been prevented. “The Uprising of 20,000”, occurred in November 1909. 20,000 shirtwaist workers went on strike for thirteen weeks. Throughout the course of the protests, they faced violence from police and company cronies, and were often arrested. However, they never stopped demanding safer, more sanitary working conditions, and recognition for their union-the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). While many companies acquiesced to the worker’s demands, the Triangle company did not. Eleven months later, catastrophe stuck, bringing with it a heightened awareness for safer labor conditions.
Immediately following the fire were calls for legislative action. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle company, were put on trial for manslaughter in December 2011. Though they were testified against by over 100 witnesses, the pair was acquitted of all charges.
An outraged public demanded greater accountability and improved labor conditions. The Factory Investigating Commission (FIC) was created three months later in direct response to the fire. The nine-member FIC was comprised of politicians, garment-union representatives, and social reformers, and included prominent figures such as Senator Robert F. Wagner, Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers1, and Frances Perkins, who would eventually go on to become Labor Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman in the cabinet.
During its existence from 1911-1915, the FIC conducted major investigations into factory safety and sanitary conditions, fair working wages for women and children, and living conditions for workers. The Commission undertook field investigations, conducted public hearings, and surveyed factory owners, further uncovering the atrocities faced by women and children in the workplace. It also advocated for a number of laws concerning, but not limited to manufacturing in tenements, fire alarms, drills, escapes, exits, and automatic sprinklers, sanitary working conditions, the prohibition of women working at night, and the prohibition of children under the age of 14 from working in tenements. Though minimum wage laws were not passed until 1933, in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) as part of the New Deal, the Commission had also recommended minimum wage legislation.
While the passage of fair labor laws may be one of the most enduring legacies of the Triangle fire-inspired organizing, the tragedy has been memorialized multiple times over the past century. One early monument was erected in November 1911, in the Mt. Zion cemetery in Queens. The monument is dedicated to fourteen of the Jewish victims of the fire. Fourteen posts, each bearing a victim’s name are topped by three urns holding eternal flames. In 1912, The Triangle Fire Memorial to the Unknowns, a pink marble sculpture designed by sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman was erected in Brooklyn’s non-denominational Evergreens Cemetery.
The building where the fire took place still stands, and since 1961 has been the regular site of commemoration ceremonies sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (IFGWU), the NYC Fire Department, and others. In 2003, it was designated a NYC landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Place Matters and many historians, labor activists, and others promoted the designation.
Contemporary commemorations have taken many forms. To remember the 98th anniversary of the fire, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition and Worker’s United (a successor union to the ILGWU) marched in the 2009 New York City Labor Day parade carrying 146 shirtwaists mounted on poles. The actress Lulu Lolo has performed her one-act play, Soliloquy for a Seamstress: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, since 2005 and will be performing it in three places in New York City on March 25, 2001, for the centennial commemoration.
Another notable memorialization effort is the CHALK project, directed by public artist Ruth Sergel. Sergel created a Google map locating the address of each of the Triangle workers who perished in the fire. The project encourages volunteers to write the names, ages, and addresses of these women in sidewalk chalk in front of their former residences. Sergel says, “…it changes you. Once you’ve chalked in front of a building, you remember that building for the rest of time. You remember it held someone’s life.”
—Jacqueline Colognesi, March 2011
Site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 female factory workers were killed. The tragedy triggered legislative labor reform.