The shirtwaist was a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse design popularized by the iconic Gibson Girl image in the early 1900s. At this time, New York boasted about 450 shirtwaist factories, but building codes and labor laws left a lot of room for interpretation. As a result, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. Multiple factors – locked doors to prevent workers from leaving early or stealing materials; ineffective and too few fire escapes and elevators, and crowded office conditions among them – caused the deaths of 146 workers, mostly women, many recent immigrants. The fire and the ensuing trial – which exonerated the company’s owners – gave rise to movements pushing for stronger building safety standards and unionization of garment workers, which would help them lobby for better working conditions and better pay.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 tells the story of the fire and the aftermath. Black and white photos taken at the scene and the makeshift morgue bring home the pain of the event and drive home the magnitude of the fire. Readers learn that the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, went on to continue business and continue the business violations that caused so many deaths at the Asch Building, having been cleared of any wrong doing because the Asch Building was legally sound. The owners made money after the insurance settlement, causing an outcry among the deceased’s family members. The book also details the story of the garment workers labor movement and takes the reader into present-day sweatshop conditions and the continued fight for safe working conditions and a living wage.
Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor Documentation’s web exhibit with primary and secondary sources, a link to a transcript of Blanck and Harris’ trial, and a bibliography. Nonprofit organization Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, seeking a permanent memorial to the victims, offers an open archive where contributors add their own modern-day remembrances and information and a names map which lists the name, country of origin, New York address, and final resting place of the identified victims.
Short PBS documentary on the Triangle Fire.