One hundred years ago today, 146 girls, women, and men between the ages of 14 and 43 died, because of the greed of firm owners who valued profits over people.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, equipped with electric sewing machines and full of sunshine and fresh air, was thought to be one of best places to work in the garment industry. Of course, it meant that the women employed there had to work fourteen hours a day, six days a week. That’s 84 hours a week with no regular breaks, not even to use the toilet. And those girls and women might take home $12 a week–provided they didn’t break any needles or make mistakes on the garments. Then their wages would be docked, and their families would suffer.
In order to prevent employees “robbing” the company of their time or sneaking out goods, the doors to the staircases leading from the factory’s 8th and 9th floor workrooms were locked. Speaking out against these abuses would likely lead to immediate dismissal, so the works at the Triangle company keep their heads down. And when someone dropped a match in a room full of fabric, dust, and thread, sparking an inferno that would sweep through the top floors of the Asch Building, the workers–mostly women, mostly poor, mostly young, and mostly immigrant–had no where to go. They crammed into (and on top of) an elevator, which broke under the strain. They crowded onto a fire escape that ended well above ground level, and which bent and failed from the heat and weight. They jumped 80 or more feet to the streets below. They burned alive. They died. It took less than twenty minutes.
The horror of that day prompted a re-birth of a struggling labor movement that led–eventually–to limited hours, better wages, and mandatory protections for workers. Unions today, including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, are under attack from state governments and popular rhetoric, and are marking the Fire today at the Asch Building, which still stands as part of NYU’s campus, just east of Washington Square Park.
Between 11 am and 1:30 pm today, crowds will gather at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village, to remember the event. Whether or not you’re in NYC, you can watch the events streaming live here, or find events closer to your location.
Cornell University has created a remarkable website that details the Fire and its aftermath, and contextualizes it with the early labor movement. It includes archival information including photographs and images, news coverage of the day, eyewitness testimonies, and a list of all who died that day.