Tuesday, March 27

The shirtwaist off your back

Reading the penny-dreadful inspired by the Artificer of my Dreams steampunk goggles reminded me that Sunday was the 101st anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and the second deadliest disaster in New York City – after the burning of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904 – until the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

(The PS General Slocum was a passenger steamboat that caught fire on June 15, 1904 and sank in New York's East River. At the time of the accident she was on a chartered run carrying members of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church to a church picnic. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died.)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23; the oldest victim was 48, the youngest were two 14-year-old girls.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the upper floors to the streets below.

Know what really steams me? The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building's roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April.

The jury acquitted the two men, but they lost a subsequent civil suit in 1913 and fined about $100,000 in damages from the fire but were paid $160,000 by their insurance companies to recover it. (Blanck was arrested again in 1913 for locking his factory door during working hours. He was fined $20.)

The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

So please say a silent word of thanks the next time you put on a blouse made in a factory. People have died for the shirt on your back.


  1. D: Wow. I didn't know about that... I mean, I'e heard of the fire once or twice before, but I didn't know about all the facts and what it was about and everything. :'(


  2. Thank you for putting the story into the 'real-field'. I like to point people in directions like this with my stories because when I get started on the subject in serious conversation I come off as a preachy a-hole.

    But yeah, this was one event-setting that didn't need a lot of treatment to make horrible.

  3. My great uncle (my maternal grandmother's brother) happened to be walking by that building that day. He tried to help, but of course couldn't go into the building, and, the family story says, the bodies raining down were dead as soon as they hit the ground. I believe it's now an NYU classroom building.