The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is one of the most horrendous industrial catastrophes in American history. In all, 146 people, mostly women and children, died in the fire. It shocked New York City and the nation and led to some of the most sweeping labor and safety reforms in history. In this episode we explore the labor conditions that led to the Triangle Fire as well as the fashion that spurned such an industry – the shirtwaist. A garment that took the Gilded Age and Progressive Era by storm.
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Transcript of The Labor of Fashion: Shirtwaists and the Labor Movement in the Early 20th Century
Researched and written by Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Produced by Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Averill Earls, PhD
Elizabeth: “Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet. The first ten thud-deads shocked me. I looked up-saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down…I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.”
Averill: These are the words from an eyewitness account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that happened on Saturday March 25, 1911, in Asch Building in New York City. In all, 146 women and girls died in the fire, some were burned to death, some died from asphyxiation from smoke inhalation, and some died trying to escape the flames and smoke by jumping from the 9th floor of the building and dying upon impact.
Elizabeth: This episode is part of a series about fashion. So what was the “fashion” behind the labor conditions that allowed one of the most horrendous industrial catastrophes in American history? The Shirtwaist – a style of shirt that took Gilded Age and Progressive Era fashion by storm.
I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And I’m Averill Earls
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Averill: The shirtwaist was a mainstay of the female wardrobe from the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Elizabeth: So what exactly is a shirtwaist? Simply put, it was a woman’s blouse. It was usually made out of cotton but could also commonly be made out of linen or even silk. A typical shirtwaist was unstructured, meaning it had no boning or inner lining to give the shirt its shape. Shirtwaists were tucked, pleated, or cut smaller at the waist because they were designed to be worn tucked into a skirt. The shirtwaist could be worn with or without a jacket. They could be quiet plain or they could be elaborately decorated with lace, embroidery and pleats. The style of the shirtwaist changed over the years, depending on fashion. Changes to the necklines, collars, cuffs and rise and fall of the waistline denote different periods for the style.
Averill: Typically, A well-dressed man of business wore a white shirt with a turned down collar and cuffs under his coat and/or vest. Initially, the shirtwaist evolved from the simple, tailored men’s shirt. As women became more independent and began working outside the home, their style of dress changed to something more functional. Over time, shirtwaists evolved from the simple tailored version of a man’s shirt to beautiful feminine garments embellished with lace and trimmings.
Elizabeth: But why the weird name of shirtwaist? Well, the definition of “waist” to a nineteenth century person referred to the bodice of a woman’s dress. So today we think of waist only being the part of the body between the hips and the ribs but in the 19th and early 20th century it also referred to a specific area of a woman’s dress. So waist was another term for the bodice of a woman’s dress.
Averill: And I guess I should define “bodice” too. The bodice of a dress is the middle part, the “tube” part that covered your torso, the part of a woman’s dress, excluding the sleeves, that is above the waist. So the term shirtwaist was a combination of the shirt and the waist – the waist part being in terms of the bodice of a dress and the shirt like a man’s tailored shirt. Therefore, shirtwaist is a term only used to describe the female version of a male dress shirt.
Elizabeth: The functional shirtwaist was valued for its ready-to-wear, workplace friendly, simple design although women from all social classes wore the iconic shirt. They were also much easier to launder because there was no internal boning or lined structure. They could be washed and ironed as easy as a man’s shirt.
Averill: Although introduced as early as the 1860s, shirtwaists became more popular as the 19th century progressed. Modes of production changed after the 1860s too. Ready-made clothing became more and more accessible. At first the ready-made clothing industry focused mostly on men’s clothes because the designs were simpler and easier to produce. However, by the 1870s the ready-made clothing industry extended into the more complicated clothing for women, replacing many dressmakers with mass-produced fashions. Increased mechanization combined with advances in sizing and fitting made ready-made clothing easier to make and consume.
Elizabeth: But mass produced, ready-made clothing also allowed working class women to partake in fancier fashions that they may not have been able to afford in earlier periods. By the 1890s, the ready-made clothing industry produced levels, or grades of quality. This allowed women of all incomes the chance to wear fashionable items. So this is like wearing something that’s trendy now – you can find the same type of style at both Nordstrom and Forever 21, but one is (presumably) going to be higher quality than the other.
Averill: The late nineteenth century was such a time of changing tastes and ideas. Many women (and men) began rejecting the rigidity of the Victorian era in thoughts, actions and dress. Women were working outside of the home in larger numbers, getting college educations and advanced degrees in larger numbers, and partaking in physical activities in larger numbers.
Elizabeth: In 1876, the modern bicycle was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and immediately captured the attention of the American public. By 1885, 50,000 American men, women and children were cycling and by 1896, that number had jumped to over 10 million. Initially, women cycled in their bustles and corsets but fashions changed to accommodate bicycle riders. By far the most common approach to women’s cycling dress were skirts cut a few inches short in the style of a walking skirt. They were generally made from sturdy tweed fabrics and paired perfectly with a shirtwaist. Dark colors hid the dust and grime that a cyclist would inevitably pick up on her clothing. Interestingly, clothing or fashion is also why we have men’s bikes and women’s bikes. Bicycle manufacturers obviously had a stake in getting women on bikes, so they made a lot of adjustments in their design in order to make that happen. So the dropped or open, step-through frames that we associate with a “woman’s” bike were actually designed to accommodate a woman’s full skirt.
Averill: Another cultural phenomenon going on during the late 19th century was something called the Aesthetic Dress, or rational dress, movement. It began in England in the 1850s but there were proponents in America too. For instance, Amelia Bloomer was a proponent of less restrictive clothing. She was a women’s rights advocate and pushed for women to wear pantaloons as they were healthier and less restrictive. Pantaloons or bloomers as they came to be called, became associated with the women’s rights movement in the mid 19th century. Although the bloomers didn’t really catch on, by the 1880s more and more people were speaking out about the “ridiculousness of modern fashion.” The Aesthetic Dress movement influenced the trend towards healthier and non-restrictive clothing for women. Although most women wore corsets well into the 1920s, corset design in the late-nineteenth century became less restrictive, bustles if worn at all were much smaller, and hoops became completely out of fashion.
Elizabeth: All of this – the education, the job, the bicycle, the female in public- became associated with the “New Woman.” She was smart, she was independent, and she was stylishly dressed. The fashion icon of the day was known as the “Gibson Girl.” First drawn by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson beginning in 1890, the Gibson Girl combined older and more modern elements of American fashion. She was tall and slender but still retained the corseted waist and ample hips and bosom of the Victorian era. Her hair was always piled on top of her head in the fashionable bouffant or chignon style. The Gibson Girl was often depicted in action, either riding a bike, playing tennis, leisurely enjoying the outdoors, or playing an instrument. She was the modern, New Woman, perfectly capable in her interests and talents. The Gibson Girl was often depicted wearing a shirtwaist and a long, dark-colored skirt. The Shirtwaist came to represent more than a fashion trend, it was in a way an emblem of the New Woman and a symbol of female independence in a rapidly changing time.
Averill: By the 1890s women could purchase most of the clothing they needed, including the fashionable shirtwaists. They were worn with a dark skirt and were “the” staple of a working woman’s wardrobe.They were sold across the country and through mail order cataloges like Sears and Roebuck.
Elizabeth: During the early 20th century, women became a significant presence in the American labor force, making up almost 22 percent of all wage earners by 1930. Many working-class and immigrant woman worked in factory positions while middle-class women, including some middle class Black, Hispanic and Asian women, with a high-school or advanced education worked in professional fields like teaching, nursing and social work. The figure of the working woman, wearing the fashionable shirtwaist became an iconic image for the women’s rights movement and the changing nature of work in general.
Averill: The production of shirtwaists was a super competitive industry at the turn of the twentieth century. A majority of shirtwaists were mass produced in Philadelphia and New York City but there were major factories and sweatshops in other industrialized cities too, particularly those with large immigrant populations like Chicago. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located in the top floors of the Asch building in Greenwich Village, was one of many shirtwaist factories operating in Manhattan. Factories like the Triangle were core to New York’s status as an industrial center and provided jobs to the thousands of immigrants that arrived in the country on a daily basis.
Elizabeth: Many garments, not just shirtwaists, were produced in what was called the sweating system. Owners subcontracted a lot of the work to individuals who then hired people under them to do the work, and then they got the profit. Subcontractors could pay the workers whatever rates they wanted, which were often extremely low.
Averill: Labor advocate Florence Kelley oversaw labor conditions in Chicago, Illinois. She described the three types of shops that operated in Chicago (and most large cities). The first were known among the employees as the “inside shops,” or those conducted on the factory system by the manufacturers themselves. Then there were the “outside shops,” or those conducted by the contractors who hired subcontractors; and then the “home shops” where family groups did “outwork” for the subcontractors in their homes. She described how the factories that once made a garment from start to finish were dividing the labor to make production faster and driving production speed to dangerous levels.
Elizabeth: Kelley described one of these sweating situations, “A shop was found in which 12 persons lived in 6 rooms, of which two were used as a shop. Knee-pants in all stages of completion filled the shop, the bedrooms and kitchen. Nine men were employed at machines in a room 12 by 14, and there knee-pants were being manufactured by the thousand gross. This is in the rear of a swarming tenement in a wretched street.”
Averill: One young Russian-Jewish immigrant wrote about the first job she got upon arriving in a New York City textile factory in 1892.
“From this hour a hard life began for me. He [the boss] refused to employ me except by the week. He paid me three dollars and for this he hurried me from early until late. He gave me only two coats at a time to do. When I took them over and as he handed me the new work he would say quickly and sharply, “Hurry”… I hurried but he was never satisfied. By looks and manner he made me feel that I was not doing enough. Late at night when the people would stand up and begin to fold their work away and I too would rise feeling stiff in every limb and thinking with dread of our cold empty little room and the uncooked rice, he would come over with still another coat.
“I need it the first thing in the morning,” he would give as an excuse. I understood that he was taking advantage of me because I was a child…
Elizabeth: Some garment workers were paid by a system known as piecework, meaning they were paid by the piece that they sewed. This meant that bosses paid workers less when there was less work to do. It was a way for owners and bosses to transfer the risk of a seasonal industry, because fashion is seasonal, to the workers. Wages could drop by half during slow periods.
Averill: Pauline Newman was the first female general organizer of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and she worked for the union for six decades. She began working in a hairbrush factory at the age of ten. When she was twelve a relative got her a job working at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1903. Girls like Newman spent twelve to fourteen hours a day in shops and factories like the Triangle, making about $3 to $6 a week. The average salary in America was roughly $500 a year. A woman making $3 to $6 a week made apx. $100 to $300 a year. The noise of sewing machines was deafening, the pace of work was backbreaking, and sexual advances by male coworkers and foremen were a common occurrence. Newman wrote a series of journals and poems, some of which were published in New York Yiddish-language newspapers. She described the factories as such:
Elizabeth: “Most of the so-called factories were located in old wooden walkups with rickety stairs, splintered and sagging floors. The few windows were never washed and their broken panes were mended with cardboard…In the winter a stove stood in the middle of the floor, a concession to the need for heat, but its warmth rarely reached the workers located near the windows. During the summer months the constant burning of gas jets added their unwelcome heat and smell to an atmosphere already intolerably humid and oppressive… There was no drinking water available…Dirt, smells, and vermin were as much a part of the surroundings as were the machines and workers.”
Averill: When Newman started working at the Triangle she was assigned to a corner of the shop floor dubbed “the kindergarden,” where workers as young as eight or nine trimmed threads from finished garments. By the early twentieth century, New York had laws prohibiting children from working at night but there was little enforcement. Newman remembered the rare occasion when an inspector would show up. Someone would tip off the employees and the children would climb into the boxes of finished shirts and they’d just pile more shirts on top of them until the inspector left. And let’s remember, some families wanted their children working. They provided much needed income to help the family simply survive.
Elizabeth: Another garment worker, Clara Lemlich, began working in textile manufacturing as a young girl only two weeks after arriving in New York City. Her family fled the Ukraine in 1903 following the Kishinev (Kish-e-nev) pogrom where 49 Jewish people were killed, large numbers of Jewish women were raped, and 1500 Jewish homes were destroyed. Upon arrival in New York City, Lemlich began working at the Gotham shirtwaist factory were women worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for starting wages of $3 a week. Lemlich wrote that these conditions reduced workers “to the status of machines.” “We worked from sunrise to set seven days a week.” She joined the board of a chapter of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Lemlich was integral in growing her local chapter because she suggested that woman organizers should recruit women workers and found organizers to recruit workers in their naive language, ie Yiddish, English and Italian respectively. Along with Newman, Lemlich became an ardent socialist and participated in numerous strikes. In 1909 during a strike at the Leiserson shirtwaist maker, she was arrested seventeen times and had six of her ribs broken by company guards and city police. Yet, she kept on marching the picket line.
Averill: It’s important to note that labor organizers like Lemlich and Newman were part of a movement coined industrial feminism. It was greatly influenced by Socialism but was not a rigid form of political thought. Union organizers, most notably The American Federation of Labor (AFL), shied away from broad reforms to more narrow, limited goals like higher wages as opposed to creating a “cooperative commenwealth” that the earlier, more utopian minded labor organization, the Knights of Labor, had entailed. After bloodbaths like the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania in 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894, organizations like the AFL felt that direct confrontations with large corporations were just plain suicidal. The labor organizing done by women like Newman and Limlich however was more than just the bread-and-butter demands of the AFL. Industrial feminism developed demands that included better wages and working conditions but also wanted unions to offer educational and cultural opportunities and even healthcare.
Elizabeth: On November 22, 1909, only two months after having her ribs broken on a previous picket line, Lemlich stood in front of thousands of shirtwaist workers at the Cooper Union in New York City. The crowd had gathered to listen to a group of mostly male union officials. No working women were scheduled to speak and after a few of the men had spoken, Lemlich took over the podium and moved for a general strike. Speaking in Yiddish she boomed, “”I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.” After rounds of applause, Lemlich and the thousands in attendance took a Yiddish oath to strike the following day, pledging, “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” The next day New York City awoke to a strike of roughly 20,000 garment workers mostly teenage and women.The movement that culminated in the uprising of the 20,000 had began with strikes against the Leiserson Company, the Rosen Brothers, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Now it had spread to the entire city. It was the largest strike ever in female dominated industries.
Averill: The strike, dubbed the Uprising of Twenty Thousand, is often talked about as a spontaneous strike. Nothing could be further from the truth however. It’s like the myth of Rosa Parks being a little old lady that was just too tired to give up her seat. No, Parks was a labor organizer and a civil rights organizer and she was trained and ready to do what needed to be done to push the movement forward. The Uprising of Twenty Thousand was very much in the same vein. Limlich, Newman, and countless other organizers had been working towards a strike of that magnitude for three years, and working women had been listening, learning, and organizing.
Elizabeth: The Uprising of Twenty Thousand strike lasted for over two months. The strike was organized and held by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and workers but they had support from The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), a progressive association of middle class white women. Almost immediately after the strike started, police and hired thugs began violently beating and hauling off striking women. They called them streetwalkers and tried to tie their activism to sexual misconduct or delinquency.
Averill: The WTUL helped the striking workers with funds and access to the press. Anne Morgan (daughter of JP Morgan), with the help of other wealthy New York women, formed a WTUL committee to help the strikers avoid abuse from police and hired thugs. They were named the “mink brigade” but they went out and walked the picket line with the young, immigrant strikers because the police were less likely to beat up New York City’s most respectable women. When strikers were arrested, committee members often paid their fines and the committee even brought legal action against the police.
Elizabeth: It’s really hard to overstate how massive this strike was. 20,000 people – think back to the first women’s marches in January 2017 and how the streets were just filled with protesters. That’s what the uprising of 20,000 was like. And it also was mostly women and girls, and remember that this is before women had the right to vote. Many strikers didn’t speak English. The strike crippled the shirtwaist industry for two whole months. Strikers won some concessions from several shirtwaist factories for better wages and shorter hours. Overall however, the success of the strike was a mixed bag. Some shirtwaist workers were able to gain union recognition in their factories. Larger and more powerful companies, like the Triangle Shirtwaist company, refused to recognize unions in their factories.
Averill: The Triangle Waist Company was located at 23 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. The factory, like many others, paid low wages for long hours in dangerous conditions. The owners of the Triangle, Max Blank and Isaac Harris, were known as the “Shirtwaist Kings” and made millions of dollars off the fashion trend.
Elizabeth: Surprisingly however, the Triangle factory was in many ways a model factory, all things considered. The Asch Building was actually one of the newer skyscapers in the city. It was nicer than many dingy, back room sweating factories. The new, larger factories offered a better, brightly lit environment where factory owners could crowd hundreds of mostly women onto the shop floor. Alternatively, it gave workers the opportunity to socialize. Young women like Newman and Lemlich made lifelong friends working on shop floors like the Triangle.
Averill: The loft space allowed for large banks of electric sewing machines and enabled all aspects of the business, from the initial cuts to distribution, to be conducted under one roof. What this meant however, was demand of production was higher. Mechanization was higher in new shops like this, and so output and production speed was drastically increased. So basically you had to work just as hard or harder because now you had a faster sewing machine and had the potential of making more finished pieces a day. The factory was terribly overcrowded and the layers of loose threads and fabric clippings accumulated under the tables and clung to women’s clothing and hair.
Elizabeth: Fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist company near closing time on Saturday March 25, 1911, in the top floors of the Asch Building. The Triangle Shirtwaist company took up the top three floors of the building, so the eighth, ninth and tenth floors. The fire started on the eighth floor at about 4:40 in the afternoon. Investigators later determined that the fire was started by a discarded cigarette. The shop was filled with paper patterns, fabric, and scraps and loose threads discarded on the floor that quickly caught fire. Workers inside panicked and ran for the exits all at once.
Averill: The building had an internal switchboard operator who called up to the tenth floor to alert the office workers and owners of the fire. Many of the tenth floor employees, including one of the owners Max Blank and two of his daughters, managed to make it onto the roof. The adjacent building was part of NYU and a law professor and his students heard the screams and saw the fire and the people desperately making it onto the roof. The NYU building was a little higher than the Asch building. Students grabbed some ladders and ran to their buildings roof, then lowered their ladders down to the people below. Everyone that made it to the roof managed to escape.
Elizabeth: Many people still inside were not as lucky. No one alerted the ninth floor of the fire that had started on the eighth floor. The ninth floor was packed. Every available space on the shop floor was taken up by a sewing machine. There were about three hundred machines on the floor. Once the fire reached their floor, workers panicked and rushed the exits as they had on the eighth. About one hundred people escaped on the elevator. The elevator made about 15 trips. When the elevator car went down, people jumped into the shaft to try to make it out.
Averill: The fire spread FAST. It burned through three floors in eighteen minutes.
The fire department was on the scene quickly. The fire alarm was raised at approximately 4:45 and the fire department arrived minutes after. By this point women were standing on the window ledges or were seen pressing against the windows on the ninth floor. The firefighters got out their ladders but they only reached as high as the sixth floor, thirty feet below the ninth floor.
Elizabeth: Thousands of people had gathered on the street below. One of those people was Frances Perkins, who would later become FDR Secretary of Labor and one of the masterminds behind the New Deal. Years later she remembered that awful day:
“I remember that, the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park and we heard the engines and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the men were trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net to catch people if they do jump, they were trying to get that out and they couldn’t wait any longer. They began to jump. The window was too crowded and they would jump and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke, they [fell] a terrible distance, the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. Every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.”
Averill: More than 90 people jumped to their deaths from the Asch Building. One woman, Rose Oringer, survived the jump but died in the hospital later that night from internal bleeding. Later, survivors told of how they tried to open the ninth floor doors into the Washington place stairs. They believed, and many still do, that the doors were deliberately locked. The owners had frequently locked the exit doors in order to prohibit theft. Additionally, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building was blocked a few stories down and as people climbed out onto it, it bent and broke under their weight.
Elizabeth: The New York Times reported that the city coroner was overwhelmed and sobbed like a child among the bodies being laid out. A firefighter said that he saw bodies that had melted together. During the search and cleanup phase, women and girls charred bodies were pulled out of the ninth floor windows and lowered to the ground on a rope. Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. One mother was only able to identify her daughter because of the stitching on her stocking.
Averill: Even if the doors hadn’t been locked, there still weren’t adequate fire safety measures inside the building. And remember, the Asch building was a fairly new building! The stairways were two and a half feet wide. The doors opened in, not out. There was no sprinkler system throughout the building, although sprinkler systems existed at the time. The fire chief Edward Croker had been pleading for years previous for improved fire safety but remember, lawmakers are the ones that set regulations and appropriate funds for fire departments and the like, and there was no political will to meddle with private business. Fire drills existed at the time but many places wouldn’t do it because it would disrupt the work day. Dollars would be lost. Basically, the law didn’t require any of the fire safety measures that can save lives in an emergency like this. Despite the push of many Progressive Era reformers, government had not gotten involved in protecting worker safety at this time. There was a prevailing notion that regulation stifled business. That it was an owners right to do and run his company however he saw fit. Laissez fair capitalism trumped workers freedom to work in safe environments for a livable income.
Elizabeth: Rose Schneiderman, a major leader in the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) spoke at a mass memorial service held for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and summed up the feelings of many in the labor movement.
“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting.
The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us–warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
Daaaaaamn! She’s like, yeah, your thoughts and prayers aint
shit people. It’s time for action. Don’t tell us how to protest “correctly.” We’re out here dying and we’re going to organize.
Averill: There was such an outrage over these senseless deaths that there was an effort to bring those responsible to justice. The reports that the doors of the factory were locked at the time of the fire prompted the District Attorney’s office to seek an indictment against the owners, Harris and Blanck. On April 11, a grand jury indicted them on seven counts. The case went to trial in December. Worker after worker testified that the only door workers were allowed to leave through at quitting time was through an opening on the Green Street side of the building. They testified that all purses and bags were inspected as they left. Worker after worker testified that they couldn’t open the doors to the Washington Place exit because the Greene Street stairs were engulfed in flames. More testimony supported this fact. Yet the jury acquitted Blanck and Harris of any wrongdoing. The jury let them off because it couldn’t be proved without any doubt that the owners actually knew the doors were locked at the time. The defense attorney was able to cast enough doubt on that fact to be found not guilty.
Elizabeth: Later, twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch building. On March 11, 1914, three years after the fire, Harris and Blanck settled their own civil suits. They paid 75 dollars per life lost.
Averill: Only the day before the tragic and preventable catastrophe at Triangle, the New York State Court of Appeals had struck down a new “workmen’s compensation” law as unconstitutional, as it interfered with the “due process” rights of employers to have their liability adjudicated in court. If you want a deeper dive into how the law worked in favor of employers during this period, have a listen to our episode on the Fourteenth Amendment.
Elizabeth: After the Triangle Fire however, there was enough public support that the state Constitution was amended and a workers’ compensation law subsequently enacted in 1913.
Averill: After the Triangle Fire disaster, the state of New York created a Factory Investigating Commission to study safety, sanitation, wages, hours and child labor in places like sweatshops, canneries and bakeries. Frances Perkins and Pauline Newman were hired as investigators for the committee.
Elizabeth: Over the years following the fire, New York adopted 36 of the commission’s recommendations into law. Several of the commission members went on to ascend to the national stage, where they spearheaded many national reforms. Commission member Robert Wagner went on to become a U.S. senator and while in office saw through the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, granting to workers everywhere the right to organize, also known at the Wagner Act. That act was passed during the Great Depression and was repealed by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.
Averill: Here are some of the laws recommended by the commission and enacted in New York after the fire.
– Fire prevention – like the removal of trash and waste.
-Fire Alarm Signal Systems
-Mandatory fire escapes and exits
-limitation of number of occupants in a building
-Ventilation; general; special.
– Washing facilities; dressing rooms; water closets (toilets).
Elizabeth: But conditions were still bad. Harris and Blanck continued running the shirtwaist company.In August 1913, Max Blanck was charged with locking one of the doors of his factory during working hours. Brought to court, he was fined twenty dollars, and the judge apologized to him for the imposition.
Averill: In December of the same year inspectors found the inside of Blanck’s factory littered with debris and piled in heaps. Fabric scraps were kept in non-regulation, flammable wicker baskets. Yet instead of receiving a fine, he just got a stern warning. So even though all of these regulations were passed, they still were not enforced with strict regularity. It’s a good glimpse at how labor and capital operated during the Progressive Era, a period where we typically think of government coming in to regulate the excesses of rampant capitalism – but only if there was political will to do so.
Elizabeth: And this is one of those fundamental American questions, what does freedom mean? Does freedom mean freedom of the market? Freedom of capital, of owners to do with their business and investments what they will? Or does freedom mean freedom from want? Freedom to live and work and produce in a safe environment? It’s really a fundamental question in our Republic and we are honestly still grappling with it to this very day.
Averill: But the garment worker strikes and the Uprising of twenty thousand and the Triangle Fire did ignite a labor movement. It served as a training and organizing ground for working women like Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich and Paula Newman. And it served as inspiration for others like Frances Perkins and Robert Wagner.
Elizabeth: Frances Perkins went on to become FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary. She was one of the principal architects of the New Deal and is a prime example of a Progressive Era reformer who really bridged the early twentieth century with the 1930s and brought many of the social and civic reforms that Progressive Era reformers wanted into the New Deal. She was quoted years later saying that the New Deal was ‘based really upon the experiences that we had in New York State and upon the sacrifices of those who, we faithfully remember with affection and respect, died in that terrible fire on March 25, 1911.'”
Averill: And people in the labor movement have NOT forgotten the legacy of those garment workers. Every year on May Day there is a commemoration at the Asch building, which is now called the Brown Building and is functional and owned by NYU. Every year, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition organizes events to commemorate the fire and bring awareness to the needs of workers today. We’ve got some book recommendations in our show notes if you’d like to read up on current sweatshop labor and the labor movement in general.
Elizabeth: Now, since this episode is part of our fashion series we’d be remiss to not go back to the shirt that started it all, the shirtwaist. Whatever happened to the shirtwaist?
Averill: By the 1920s the tightly laced, mutton sleeve look was out and a straighter, flatter, more athletic-looking figure was in. Young, fashionable women didn’t wear corsets anymore, or at least the body morphing, wasp or hourglass shaping kind of the previous generation.
Elizabeth: One reason the corset fell out of style was on account of World War I. Corsets used metal boning to shape women’s bodies into the hourglass figure so popular in the 19th century. But, metal was needed for ammunition and other military supplies. So, in 1917 the U.S. War Industries Board asked American women to stop buying new corsets. At about the same time the bra started being mass produced.
Averill: Women didn’t stop wearing figure changing clothing however, the metal boned corset just gave way to other forms of hell? body-shaping foundations like girdles or what we would now call body shapers.
Elizabeth: Additionally, it seems like the aesthetic clothing movement finally took over and tight lacing gave way to more comfortable, moveable styles. And so the shirtwaist fell out of fashion as style changed. Of course, women still wore skirts and blouses, but the language or nomenclature changed too. The term shirtwaist was used until the 1920s. Afterwards the more common term used was blouse or shirt.
Averill: That’s all folks! Tune in next week for another episode from your favorite historians at Dig!
Annelise Orleck. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Annelise Orleck, We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages. Beacon Press, 2018.
Ellen Israel Rosen. Making sweatshops : the globalization of the U.S. apparel industry. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2002
Florence Kelley, “The sweating system of Chicago.” In: Bureau of Statistics of Labor of Illinois. Seventh Biennial Report, 1892. Springfield, Ill.
Leon Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy . Quadrangle/New Times Book Company, 1977.
Nan Enstead. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, 1999.
Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side. 1918; reprint, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Sarah Pendergast. Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear Through the Ages. Cengage Gale, 2013.
Recordings of the commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. https://www.wnyc.org/story/119940-listen-wnyc-archives-triangle-shirtwaist-fire/
Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire. http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/index.htm
Triangle: Remembering the Fire. https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/triangle-remembering-the-fire