I was able to recover this post from yesterday’s problems.
What is a shirtwaist?
You have known all your life. It is the “I Love Lucy” dress, worn during the 1950s on TV. It can be seen in any “Mad Men” episode.
The top part of the ensemble is the shirtwaist, to be worn with a skirt of various lengths but never floor length. It became popular at the turn of the last century as women put away their corsets and floor length outfits for something much more comfortable.
And the shirtwaists were made by immigrant girls on starvation wages in tenement sweatshops. In the early 1900s, New York City outlawed work in the tenement residences so the bosses were forced to find commercial space for their operations. For the first time, these women began to work outside the home.
But conditions and pay were no better and these women, 70% eastern European Jews and 30% Italian immigrants began to work together to form a union – the Ladies Waist-Makers Union, a unit of the International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU).
On November 23, 1909, 30,000 women went out on strike. It was the first great strike by women in American history. Police showed little sympathy for the strikers notwithstanding they were women. At the end of five months the smaller manufacturers (the majority of employers) acceded to worker demands, including a 52 hour work week and tacit recognition of the union.
The very largest did not – including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company with 850 employees. When the strike was over Triangle was not a signatory of the settlement agreement and offered jobs back to its employees on a take it or leave it basis. Its owners had refused to yield an inch to the strikers.
The Triangle Company was located a block east of Washington Square Park on the top three floors of the ten story Asch Building . When it was built in 1900 the building was considered a huge step forward for the garment industry. Unlike the fetid tenement sweatshops, the Asch Building offered nearly ten thousand square feet per floor of brightly lite workspace and 12 foot ceilings. And perhaps its most important feature – the building was “fireproof.”
Tragically, its contents were not; a fact ignored by those who constructed and occupied the structure.
When the building’s plans were submitted to the city for approval, it was suggested that a third emergency stairwell be added. It was not. It was recommended that the fire escape extend to the ground rather than end six feet above a skylight. It was never altered. A fire prevention expert told the Triangle owners they aught to hold fire drills. None was ever scheduled.
He also told the firm to stop locking the doors of one of its two stairwells, but the company’s managers, convinced that unlocking them would lead to rampant theft by employees, ignored this advice as well.
Louis Levy was a dealer in rags. Six times a year Levy would cart away Triangle’s scraps of fabric left over after each garment was made; he would pay Triangle about seven cents a pound and sell the “cutaways” to paper manufacturers.
On Saturday March 25, 1911 it had been ten weeks since Levy’s last visit. Over a ton of scrap fabric sat on the 8th floor of Triangle’s work space. Levy had been running a week or so late.
At 4:45 P.M. after handing out the week’s pay envelopes and ringing the quitting bell, someone noticed smoke and flame coming from underneath one of the 60 foot long cutting tables where the bulk of the scraps lay. The workers tried throwing water on the blaze but the cutting table’s tops and sides, which reach almost to the floor in order to hold in the cuttings, prevented the water from reaching the rapidly spreading fire.
The workers on the eight floor fled for their lives, taking the elevator or the fire escape or squeezing through single file down the narrow spiral staircases.
The fire soon became an inferno with several thousand pounds of combustible material lying on the floor. It spread rapidly through the air shaft to the 9th floor where 250 women had just shut down their sewing machines. A few made it down one staircase before it became engulfed in flames.
And the door to the other stairway was locked. After trying for a few minute to break the lock they gave up. Some on the tenth floor fled to the roof where they were able to climb ladders laid to the adjoining roof of New York University by students who saw the fire from their classroom windows.
With flames spreading on the eighth floor, women climbed out the windows onto the narrow fire escape but were afraid to jump as it ended in mid-air and hanged over the glass skylight. These women were stranded there. Soon it came loose from the building due to the eat, dangling precariously as the women hung on.
Within minutes after being discovered, the fire made it impossible for those on the ninth floor to escape. No more could fit on the fire escape, one stairwell and the elevator shaft were in flames and the other stairwell was locked.
Many climbed out of the windows and prepared to jump, dismayed to see when the fire department arrived the ladders on the trucks only reached to the sixth floor, 30 feet below. Flames were now shooting out of the 9th floor to ceiling windows, designed to let in the light but gave no protection from the flames.
Bodies n the street
Hair and clothing of those outside began to burn; one woman tried to jump to the ladder but missed it and ‘hit the sidewalk like a flaming comet.” Nets were deployed but were useless at such heights, jumpers who managed to hit them crashing to the ground as even the burliest fireman was unable to hold on.
About eighty of the Triangle women, cowing on the ledge or inside the building next to the locked door died from burns of smoke inhalation. Another 19 leaped into the elevator shaft; they too died. Another 40 or so decided to jump. Some alone. Others with their arms wrapped around one another, their long hair trailing above them as the fell.
No matter how they did it the result was the same – “Thud! Thud! Thud!” wrote one journalist who was present. “They hit the pavement just like hail.”
As if the scene was not gruesome enough, the last woman to jump was impaled on an iron hook that protruded from the building six stories above the ground, the burning body hanging there for awhile before falling to the ground.
Those trapped on the fire escape died as the heat finally force the it to snap from the building and fall through the skylight below, killing everyone.
One hundred forty six workers lay dead, all but fifteen were women. All but ten were immigrants; just over one hundred eastern European Jews; forty Italians; one Jamaican. O ne 17 year old girl had arrived from Russia just 6 weeks before.
In the neighborhoods the tragedy was immense. “Yesterday was one of the most horrific days in the history of the Jewish quarter” wrote the Yiddish language Daily Forward. New Yorkers demanded someone be held accountable.
The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were indicted for manslaughter on the grounds of the locked 9th floor door. Their lawyers insisted that if the door was locked, it was the floor managers, not the owners who were at fault and it was done without the owners knowledge or consent. The Judge’s instructed the jury that if there was reasonable doubt as to the owner’s culpability, they should be acquitted.
They were. The verdict was “revolting to the moral sense of the community.”
Civil suits for negligence were dragged out for years; insurance paid only 23 families who lost a loved $75 each in settlement.
Over the next several years however, the New York state legislature enacted some 20 workplace safety regulations, including one of the first Workmen’s Compensation acts in the nation, a statue requiring automatic sprinklers in high buildings, fire drills in tall buildings and tougher regulations involving fire escapes, inspections, exit stairwells and exit doors.
Industry of course, pushed back winning modifications and/or exemptions.
Max Blanck was arrested again in 1913 for locking an exit door at his new factory. He was fined $20, the minimum under the law. The judge believed the inspector had been “over zealous” and apologized for having to punish him at all.
Those who think government over-regulates business, “imposing” needless rules that cost jobs should learn from the eras of unregulated capitalism.
Happy Labor Day.