Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 106th Anniversary

March 25, 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in NYC and one of the deadliest in US history. It occurred at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at 23-29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village. 146 garment workers  – 123 women and 23 men died. Some jumped to their deaths because entrances were blocked, others died from smoke inhalation, falling, and fire. The oldest victim was Providenza Panno, 43 and the youngest Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese, 14. Most garment workers were Jewish and Italian immigrants.

They think the fire was started by a cigarette butt or match in the scrap bin which had two months worth of scraps. There are other speculations of what could have caused it. Arson in the garment industry was not uncommon. When a particular fashion went out of style, sometimes there’d be an “accidental fire” to collect insurance. The owners Harris and Blanck had four suspicious fires in their companies but this one was not suspected as arson.

The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The exits and stairwells were kept locked by the owners to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. Many of the people who couldn’t escape the building jumped to their deaths. This tragedy helped fuel the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). They fought for better conditions for sweatshop workers. The fire also paved the way for legislation to improve factory conditions. This is what working conditions were like when there were less regulations. For a good example what life was like working when there were less regulations, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. We read it in 8th grade and I remember it till this day, it left quite an impression. It was all about free market until the Depression hit; at it’s peak unemployment was at 25%.

My maternal grandparents worked at a factory in Soho. Back in the days when a lot of people got robbed in Soho.  My parents would take us to visit my grandparents once in a while when I was little. I remember the loud drum of the industrial sewing machines. My grandma would show off her grandkids to her friends. I kinda hated it because they would all pinch my cheeks (I still have cheeks), it would hurt. I hated the cheek pinching, visiting was nice. After she was done showing us around, my grandparents would take us to the managers office. Her manager was not only her boss but became her friend. They stayed best friends till my grandma’s death. I wish I appreciated these grandparents more, they were always weird to me (culturally they were very different, they were immigrants) and my Dad’s side (I’m 5th generation American) is very ignorant towards immigrant Chinese. I wish I understood how hard it was for my maternal grandparents. But I’m glad I understand now; better late than never.

My maternal grandparents worked hard when they emigrated over. My grandma was part of a union as a seamstress but not my grandpa, he swept the floors after he closed his business that wasn’t doing well. They had safer factory conditions than the garment workers at the turn of the century. Their exits were open, bathrooms adequate, given lunch breaks, etc.

Now the former factory building is part of New York University. It is known as the Brown Building, formerly Asch Building. It’s the Science building. I owe it to the garment workers who lost their lives which paved the way to a better future for sweatshop workers. Them and Al Smith (he’ll be addressed in a later post). Without labor regulations there would be a lot more work accidents and deaths. The importance of regulations is to protect our workers and protect from accidents like this ever happening again.


16 thoughts on “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 106th Anniversary

  1. Thank you for sharing this piece of Women’s Herstory and also a part of your family history.
    Many do not know that March is Women’s History month.
    Great architectural photos also.

    1. Thanks! I go through history phases and recently started reading about the Lower East Side again. This post came about because I was curious about Al Smith. I noticed a plaque on Oliver St where my Dad lived as a kid and the projects nearby were named after him. This tragedy lead to him and others to push for progression labor legislation. I kinda always sort of knew about the tragedy but not indepth. When I realized the anniversary was today I ran over there to take pics for it to write about.

      I never quite understood how hard my grandparents worked and how it had to be so hard to leave everything behind. I’m proud of them.

  2. I wish more workers’ rights activists would talk more about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire when people criticize the unions. A number of people don’t know why unions came about, and kids like my students think working conditions like that existed in the Middle Ages, and not in industrialized America. (They also think the teachers are cruel when we make them clean up after themselves after a party—oh, to be so innocent you don’t know what real work is!) Now we have the on-demand “gig economy” and companies like Uber which expect their “contractors” to work for low wages with no benefits and no breaks. Workers might not be locked up in fire hazards, but the same basic viewpoint that allows both to exist is still there: human beings are just parts in a machine and easily replaced when they’re no longer able to work. Unions and other workers’ rights initiatives re-assert that we have the right to a living wage and humane working conditions.

    I’ve always admired people who are able to sew. Your grandparents sound awesome; they’d probably be delighted to know their grandchild appreciates their lives now. 🙂

    1. I’ve been reading about Lower East Side history and really understand a good part of me. My family has always been pro union, labor rights, etc. My Dad’s side knew the history of the neighborhood. Most of my LES friends tend to be Socialists and we’re too left wing for some of our liberal friends. But we also grew up less sheltered then them. It really upsets me when we try and explain why we believe in gov. housing, social programs, etc. What pisses me off is that they refuse to empathize and won’t even care to listen us try and explain what it’s like to be less fortunate. I never realized how many liberals disdain the poor and homeless as mush as the right wing. The more I read about my neighborhood history the prouder I get. It really made me the person I am. We realize that all our friends that grew up with less; we feel like we turned out to be better people than out sheltered liberal friends. We’re more willing to lend a helping hand and we don’t think smashing pumpkins in a poor neighborhood around Halloween is fun. We were disgusted when our friends did that. If those assholes only knew it’s s luxury to get a pumpkin to carve when you’re poor. People really need to learned about what working conditions and the country was like before the 1930s. So many people are so ignorant of what it was like before unions. So many people don’t even know how hard it was for their ancestors when they came over. We have some anti regulation friends, they frustrate us. We try to avoid talking about politics but someone always brings it up (not us).

      Wish I had understood my grandparents more when they were around. Glad I am learning to now.

      1. People who are against government help for low income and homeless people aren’t liberals. They’re just selfish NIMBYs. They love flaunting easy gestures like sorting their trash for recycling, bringing their own bags to the supermarket—oh, wait, farmers’ market, because it’s so foodie—and buying only organically-grown/sourced produce: but seeing the poor among them is an unpleasant reminder that market solutions don’t work as public policy and maybe YOU could be doing something for them? Anyway, I hate to admit it, but this year has been rough, socially, after writing off several friends who are mad at 45 but don’t want to make any effort to resist the erosion of democracy. That’s how we lose it, when citizens show no interest in participating or fighting for it.

        I think when you act in what would have been your grandparents’ interests, it’s a living memorial to their lives and their work. But you can’t blame yourself for not understanding them when you were a child. Kids are still learning the basics of living; some of them may be “woke” at an early age, but that’s usually because they’re surrounded by kind and generous adults who model compassion. Not many of us are so lucky, but we can be good models for the next generation of kids.

      2. I don’t see those friends as liberal either. They are liberal with gay rights, environment, want women’s equality believe in welfare and housing for disabled but that’s it. They feel the poor are too lazy. We are so insulted because both Vic and I have roots int he projects. We didn’t grow up in them but my parents did and Vic’s mom lived in them when she first arrived from China. They make it sound like everyone shitty lives in the projects and never get out. I always defend them – saying many good people live there. Falls on deaf ears. My dentist grew up down the hall from my Mom in the projects. Now he has a snazzy practice off 5th Ave by one of our renowned museums uptown. If I had to compare my friends, the ones from “bad neighborhoods” do a lot better than my friends that grew up entitled. They also weren’t as lazy in school too. It’s a hard year. I am having a tough time too knowing I have friends that won’t resist but disagree. Vic said to me, “Not everyone will participate. You know some people just don’t do that stuff. You have to understand that.” He’s more level headed than me.

  3. A great story you share here, I am glad we have been going forward to make working environment better and better. I am sure there are more improvements to be made.

  4. There are so many cool factories in Philly
    Some of which I do believe still standing
    Like the stenton hat factory
    Beyers ice cream
    There are still some clothing factories
    I just love that industrial architecture
    As always Sheldon

  5. Great post. I recall being on a walking tour and my heart just stopped when I realized we were at the site of the Triangle fire. I couldn’t help seeing women jumping to their deaths to escape the fire. It ought to be a memorial – It just seems wrong to have it be just another educational building. You also got me thinking about my family. I never really thought about it, but my grandmother also worked in the garment industry – she worked in a coat factory in Minnesota in the 1920s. Things must have improved a lot by then, because she had money to buy beautiful clothes and had a lovely apartment and went on lots of picnics and road trips. She and her sister even had a car! (Her brother bought it for them before he went back to Finland, because women couldn’t buy cars then.) Of course, then she married a painter who became a farmer and then depression hit. . .

    1. Thanks for sharing your family story with me 🙂 I will never forget reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. We had to read that in 8th grade and I never forgot. I remember thinking it wasn’t that bad for my grandma. Glad our grandmas got to enjoy themselves. The Depression, I remember stories of that too. I realized recently that most people I know never grew up listening to stories of the depression, WWII and why unions are so important. My Dad’s side has been here since the 1870s (we estimate). Most people are 1st to 3rd gen. that I know. I’m not sure what brought it up but one day I just realized – no one I know grew up hearing stories about the depression. They really freaked me out. Chinatown/Lower East Side was an immigrant, poor and working class neighborhood growing up. It wasn’t the safest area,there was crime and homeless. I just remember my Dad’s side telling us that it use to be way worse. We should be thankful for food, etc and those stories have stuck with me, I’m grateful for them. Most of my friends only know the Depression from textbooks.

      My Dad use to farm in NJ! I don’t think I know why they stopped working on the farm. I’ll go ask next time. When I was little he was a truck driver.

      1. Ask as many questions as you can while your folks are around to answer them. There are so many things I wish I’d asked my Dad while he was still around and able to answer. My Dad’s side had lots of stories about the depression. Not so much on my Mother’s side – my grandmother once told me “We were poor before, so it didn’t really change that much.” But they were farmers, so there was always food. It had to be a lot scary for city folks or farms that didn’t get the rain they needed. All my grandparents were immigrants. . .

      2. I got my Dad to journal. I should work on him with it again. It’s good for his memory. He has heart disease related dementia. Think he stopped working on it. I will make it a project where we sit together and he write down what the neighborhood was like, etc. Recently I realized he’s my source of living history!

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