The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Tombstone of Tillie Kupferschmidt who died in ...

A few weeks ago, while being up late flipping through the channels, I came across a documentary on this tragic fire.    A little background first:

Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on M...
Image of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25 - 1911.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In New York City,  the early 1900’s, it was common for women and teenage girls to work long hours — 12 hours a day or more — in factories. They worked six days a week, and were paid barely enough to live on.

In this particular factory, the women worked on the 8th and 9th floors. Management was on the 10th floor.

They manufactured “shirtwaists” which were white tailored shirts for women that were tighter around the waist to fit a woman’s figure.

At the end of the day, the women had to leave through one exit, onto Greene Street. The exit onto Washington Place was locked. A foreman stood at the  Greene Street exit, and forced every employee to open her purse to prove she was not STEALING a shirtwaist.

Competition in this business was tough, and these men were serious about their profits.

The women worked day after day, year after year, living at the poverty level. They decided to unionize. They wanted less hours, and better pay, and better working conditions. Yes, a little air might be nice.

The women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were able to rally hundreds of factory workers across New York City to join them in a strike. They picketted for months, collecting no salary. Meanwhile, the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, paid cops, prostitutes and pimps to beat the striking women, taunt them,  and insult them, to wear them down so they would give in. Finally, most of the factories were Unionized. Blanck and Harris refused the union, but did finally agree to shortened work hours and raises for the employees.

The women went back to work.

A few months later– it is assumed it was caused by a cigarette butt–a fire started in one of the scrap bins on the 8th floor. The women, working hard at their sewing machines, did not notice it until it got out of control. A passerby noticed the fire and called the fire department. Meanwhile, someone called up to notify the 10th floor Management, and they were able to get out of the building by going to the roof, and climbing across to another building. Saved their own butts.

The women on the 8th and 9th floors tried to get out by the Greene Street exit, but the flames blocked their way. They tried in vain to get out the Washington exit; the foreman who had the key to the door had likewise gotten out through the roof safely. There was an elevator which was able to take several groups of women out but eventually the elevator stopped working. Some of the workers were pushed through the elevator shaft by the others who were trying to avoid the heat and smoke, and were killed. Some women tried to get out through the fire escape, which then pulled loose from the side of the building, killing more.

By the time the fire department showed up, there was not much they could do; their ladder reached only to the 6th floor. Firefighters and cops — some of the same cops who had months before beat these women– watched helplessly as women jumped out of windows to avoid the flames. The crowds surrounding the burning building watched in hysterics as the bodies crashed to the pavement.

Photograph shows police or fire officials plac...
Photograph shows police or fire officials placing Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire victims in coffins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were tried for manslaughter, and because they were able to afford the best attorneys money can buy, were not found guilty of any wrongdoing. They collected their insurance money, far in excess of the property value. They then slithered away into anonymity.

The women did not die in vain; over 60 new labor laws were passed to help prevent something like this from happening again. The unions became stronger and were able to secure more safe working conditions. Obviously, the unions of the early part of the 1900’s were good for the workers.

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Which leads us to another thought: Why have today’s unions been allowed to spiral so far out of control?!?!?

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