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How a tragedy transformed protections for American workers

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire—which killed 146 garment workers—shocked the public and galvanized the labor movement.

Photograph by Keystone, Getty
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Fire hoses spray the upper floors of the Asch Building—headquarters to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company—during the 1911 fire in New York City that shocked the U.S. into developing new worker safety standards.

Photograph by Keystone, Getty
HistoryExplainer

How a tragedy transformed protections for American workers

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire—which killed 146 garment workers—shocked the public and galvanized the labor movement.

Smoke poured out of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. Then came the bodies. Young women—mostly immigrants, all poor sweatshop workers—leapt to their deaths in a desperate bid to escape the flames that raced through the Triangle Waist Company’s factory.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers who were trapped in an unsafe building during the preventable blaze. The tragedy shocked the public and inspired Progressive movement activists to push for new workplace safety laws in New York State—which ultimately became the model for stronger regulations across the country.

The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, Russian Jewish immigrants known as the “Shirtwaist Kings.” They founded the Triangle Waist Company in 1900, producing ready-to-wear shirtwaists, tailored, button-down blouses that were the era’s most popular women's garments. Their success skyrocketed them into luxurious lifestyles.

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Women operate sewing machines in a workroom similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York. The factory’s poor conditions contributed to the severity of the fire.

Their employees’ lives stood in stark contrast. Most garment workers barely earned enough to subsist. The factory employed mostly young women, some as young as 14; most were immigrants, and all were expected to work grueling, 13-hour days. Workers were goaded by supervisors who discouraged bathroom and lunch breaks and punished them for talking, singing, or pausing in their monotonous work.

Though the Triangle factory was considered modern—particularly compared to the sweatshops of its day—its workers were subject to horrendous working conditions. Fabric scraps littered the floors of the factory’s overcrowded rooms. The building only had a single, flimsy fire escape, leading to an internal courtyard, and there were no fire extinguishers, only pails of water. Workers bent over sewing machines that were fitted onto long rows of wooden tables. And doors were locked to keep them from taking unsanctioned breaks.

Despite a strike in in 1909, Triangle’s owners resisted unionization, lashing out at picketers and ignoring union demands for safer conditions including unlocked doors and working fire escapes. The factory was a tinderbox—and on March 25, 1911, a few minutes before the factory closed for the day, it burst into flames. Historians speculate the flames were ignited by a cigarette tossed in a scrap bin—likely by a male worker or supervisor as few women smoked at the time.

Within moments, the building was inundated by fire. The fabric inside burned swiftly. Terrified workers pushed at the doors and flooded toward the too-small fire escape. "I broke the window of the elevator door with my hands and screamed, 'fire! fire! fire!'” recalled Irene Seivos, who made blouse trimmings on the eighth floor of the building, in her testimony during a criminal trial after the fire. “It was so hot we could scarcely breathe.”

Workers crowded at the windows, begging for help. Then, they began to jump. Firefighters who attempted to catch them used netting that fell apart with the impact; their ladders only reached up to the sixth floor. Inside the building, others jumped down the elevator shaft in an attempt to escape suffocation and death. As onlookers screamed and firefighters battled the blaze, the mangled bodies of the people who jumped piled up on the sidewalk. “Strewn about as the firemen worked, the bodies indicated clearly the preponderance of women workers,” noted The New York Times the day after the fire.

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The 30-minute blaze left nothing but charred debris. One hundred and forty-six garment workers died in the fire. The oldest victim, Providenza Panno, was 43, and the youngest, Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, were 14.

Thirty minutes later, the blaze was out. The factory floors of the building, which survived intact, contained nothing but charred debris. One hundred and forty-six workers died. It would take nearly a century for the identities of all the fire’s victims to be determined—in some cases because their bodies had been charred beyond recognition and, in others, simply because no one at the time bothered to make a definitive list.

Blanck and Harris were indicted on several counts of manslaughter but were acquitted and never paid a serious price for their negligence.

For years, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the United States’ worst occupational disaster—a macabre symbol of the tragic hazards of the sweatshop system. But the fire birthed more than tragedy. It shocked Americans and galvanized public opinion on workplace safety, and the investigation afterward exposed the factory’s unsafe conditions. Though its victims were among the poorest and most invisible laborers, their deaths were publicly mourned and acknowledged.

The fire also sparked effective and groundbreaking legislation in New York and set the stage for future national labor legislation and the New Deal. And it inspired a witness to the tragedy – labor activist Frances Perkins. Her fury over the unsafe conditions and deaths inspired her to push even harder to protect American workers. She later rose to become the first female Secretary of Labor, where she helped craft signature legislation—including the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act—devoted to the economic and physical safety of workers.