Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire - History of Business in the U.S.The Event: Deadly fire in a clothing factory
Date: March 25, 1911
Place: New York City
Significance: In the aftermath of the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, in which 146 people—mostly women immigrants—died, major reforms in labor and fire-safety laws were passed, and women workers and immigrants worked together to improve their working conditions and treatment.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company manufactured shirtwaists, that is, very popular cotton blouses. The building in which the factory was housed was ten stories high and supposedly fireproof. Like many sweatshops, it was overcrowded, and conditions were unsafe. Some of the fire doors were locked, and one of the fire escapes collapsed in the fire.
On March 25, 1911, a fire began in the factory, as the workers were about to leave for the day. People jumped out of the building to their deaths, falling right through the safety nets firefighters held for them. Frances Perkins saw part of the fire and served on the commission that later investigated it. She vowed that she would prevent anything of the sort from happening again. In 1933, she became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins was America’s first female cabinet member. Partly as a result of her experiences connected with the Triangle fire, she fought to improve working conditions and labor laws, especially for women,often siding with labor against management.
Most of the workers who died were female Jewish and Italian immigrants. The fire galvanized the immigrant communities to work for better conditions for workers, especially through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), which greatly helped improve conditions, especially safety conditions.
In October, 1911, in the aftermath of the fire, New York State passed the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law, requiring that factory owners install sprinkler systems and creating a single fire commission with powers previously divided among six agencies. New York also set up the Factory Investigating Commission, chaired by U.S. Senator Robert Wagner, and overhauled or enacted around three dozen laws dealing with factory safety.
The outrage that accompanied the Triangle Fire was soon forgotten, but the event itself pointed to the many terrible problems that workers faced. The fire helped prepare for a series of laws that greatly improved conditions for workers. It also helped lead to the founding of the American Society of Safety Engineers in October, 1911. The society was dedicated to improve occupational safety, health, and environmental conditions in industry, education, and government.
People demonstrate to protest the deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on March 25, 1911. (National Archives)
The main thing the fire led to was a change in the relation between government and business. Before the fire, government largely left business alone. After the fire, government felt compelled to pass and enforce laws to protect workers. Although other serious fires occurred in various industries, many historians argue that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire represents the beginning of local, state, and national governments’ attempts to achieve better working conditions. The fire could therefore be seen as an early impetus for the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, often called the Wagner Act after the man who earlier chaired the Factory Investigating Committee.
Babson, Steve. The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877-Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.NewYork: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.
See also: International Ladies’ GarmentWorkers’ Union; U.S. Department of Labor; Occupational Safety and Health Act.