As the late 19th century gave way to the 20th, the increasing number of women in the workforce was driving a change in women’s fashion. Gone were the confinements of Victorian era bodices. The “shirtwaist” blouses of the Edwardian era were patterned on men’s shirts only looser, ranging from plain, “ready to wear” simplicity to the elaborate detail and stitching that transformed the plain shirtwaist to haute mode.
A September 16, 1906 article in the Pittsburgh Press said, “A very fashionable woman with a half a hundred waists boasts that there are no two alike.” Shirtwaist blouses were sold around the country, but most were made in Philadelphia and New York City.
At the turn of the century there were over 450 textile factories in Manhattan alone, employing something like 40,000 garment workers. Many of them were young, immigrant women of Jewish and Italian ethnicity, working nine hours a day on weekdays and seven on Saturdays. Wages were typically low: $7 to $12 per week, equivalent to $3.20 to $5.50 per hour, in 2016.
The Triangle Shirtwaist factory was located in the Asch Building in the Greenwich Village area of New York City, now known as the Brown Building and part of New York University. In 1911, the factory occupied the 8th – 10th floors, employing some 500 people.
The fire started in a wicker scrap bin on the 8th floor, and spread quickly. A bookkeeper warned coworkers on the 10th by telephone, but there was no way to contact anyone on the 9th floor. Survivor Yetta Lubitz said the first warning came about the same time as the flames themselves.
Every one of the fatalities that day, came from the 200 working on this one floor. The Washington Place stairwell was locked to prevent thefts & unauthorized breaks, and the foreman had fled with the keys. The Greene Street stairwell was packed solid in three minutes. The only survivors were those who fled to the roof.
Terrified employees crowded onto a rickety fire escape, collapsing it under the weight and dropping 20 people some 100′ to their death. Fire companies were quick to arrive, but ladders only reached up to the 6th or 7th floors. A life net was unfurled, but ripped away when three women jumped for it, simultaneously. For the most part, fire companies could only look on helplessly, along with the crowd gathered on the street. 62 people, some already on fire, jumped or fell to the street below. As on 9/11, at least one couple stepped off together, holding hands as they fell.
With one exit on fire and the other locked, elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo did everything they could to save lives. Mortillalo made three trips before being forced to give up when the rails of his elevator buckled under the heat. Desperate to get out, some victims pried open the other elevator door, hoping to slide down greasy cables, or just to jump into the shaft and hope for the best. The weight and impact of their bodies warped Zito’s elevator car, making another rescue attempt impossible.
Reporter William Gunn Shepard learned a sound that day, that many of us remember from those first hours of 9/11. Before the media censored itself. “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture — the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk”.
Louis Waldman, later to become a Socialist state assemblyman, described the scene: “Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp”.
146 died that day, 123 women and 23 men.
The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, survived by fleeing to the roof when the fire began. The pair had four suspicious factory fires between 1902 and 1910, but arson was not suspected in this case.
Blanck and Harris were indicted on charges of 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter, but the jury acquitted them both. Their attorney convinced the jury that witnesses may have been “coached”, since their stories didn’t change on cross examination.
They lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 in which plaintiffs won compensation amounting to $75 per dead victim. The insurance company paid $60,000 more than the reported losses, for a profit of $336 per corpse.
The fire led to 64 new laws regulating the health and safety of New York’s factory workers, and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking a factory door during working hours. He was fined $20.
The Triangle Shirtwaist conflagration led to the largest loss of life by fire, in New York history. The second largest would be the “Happy Land” night club fire in the Bronx. 79 years later, to the day.