Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Introduction

Three stories of a ten-floor building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place were burned yesterday, and while the fire was going on 141 young men and women at least 125 of them mere girls were burned to death or killed by jumping to the pavement below.

The building was fireproof. It shows now hardly any signs of the disaster that overtook it. The walls are as good as ever so are the floors, nothing is the worse for the fire except the furniture and 141 of the 600 men and girls that were employed in its upper three stories.

Most of the victims were suffocated or burned to death within the building, but some who fought their way to the windows and leaped met death as surely, but perhaps more quickly, on the pavements below.

Nothing like it has been seen in New York since the burning of the General Slocum. The fire was practically all over in half an hour. It was confined to three floors the eighth, ninth, and tenth of the building. But it was the most murderous fire that New York had seen in many years.

The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for some one to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age. They were employed at making shirtwaist by the Triangle Waist Company, the principal owners of which are Isaac Harris and Max Blanck. Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.

There is just one fire escape in the building. That one is an interior fire escape. In Greene Street, where the terrified unfortunates crowded before they began to make their mad leaps to death, the whole big front of the building is guiltless of one. Nor is there a fire escape in the back.

The building was fireproof and the owners had put their trust in that. In fact, after the flames had done their worst last night, the building hardly showed a sign. Only the stock within it and the girl employees were burned.

A heap of corpses lay on the sidewalk for more than an hour. The firemen were too busy dealing with the fire to pay any attention to people whom they supposed beyond their aid. When the excitement had subsided to such an extent that some of the firemen and policemen could pay attention to this mass of the supposedly dead they found about half way down in the pack a girl who was still breathing. She died two minutes after she was found.

The Triangle Waist Company was the only sufferer by the disaster. There are other concerns in the building, but it was Saturday and the other companies had let their people go home. Messrs. Harris and Blanck, however, were busy and ?? their girls and some stayed.

Extracted from: The New York Times, March 26, 1911

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930) 

STANDARD 1: How Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption.

Standard 1A: The student understands the origin of the Progressives and the coalitions they formed to deal with issues at the local and state levels.

9-12: Assess Progressive efforts to regulate big business, curb labor militancy, and protect the rights of workers and consumers. [Evaluate alternative courses of action] 
5-12: Evaluate Progressive attempts at social and moral reform. [Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances] 

STANDARD 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3A: The student understands social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era. 

9-12: Analyze how the emergence of the ‘New Woman' challenged Victorian values. [Examine the influence of ideas] 

Standard 3B: The student understands how a modern capitalist economy emerged in the 1920s.

5-12: Explain how principles of scientific management and technological innovations, including assembly lines, rapid transit, household appliances, and radio, continued to transform production, work, and daily life. [Examine the influence of ideas]

Primary Resources

  1. SEE: Photographs from the Triangle Factory fire are available from Cornell University and New Deal Network

  2. SEE: Testimonials, newspaper accounts, letters, and reports relating to the Triangle Factory Fire and aftermath are available from The Triangle Factory Fire, Cornell University.

  3. TITLE: Working for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Pauline Newman and Joan Morrison.
    DESCRIPTION: From History Matters -- In this oral history interview conducted by historian Joan Morrison, Pauline Newman told of getting a job at the Triangle Company as a child, soon after arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1901. Newman described her life as an immigrant and factory worker. Like many other young immigrant workers, she chafed at the strict regulations imposed by the garment manufacturers. One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 26, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Although she was not working in the factory at the time of the fire, many of her friends perished. Newman later became an organizer and leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
    RESOURCES AVAILABLE: TEXT, AUDIO.
    SOURCE: History Matters

  4. TITLE: No Way Out: Two New York City Firemen Testify about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
    DESCRIPTION: From History Matters -- One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 26, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. In this brief excerpt from their testimony before the Factory Investigation Commission, New York City Fire Chief Edward F. Croker and Fire Marshall William Beers commented on the safety lapses—the locking of an exit door, the inadequate fire escapes, and the overcrowded factory floor—that led to the deaths of the Triangle workers.
    RESOURCES AVAILABLE: TEXT
    SOURCE: History Matters

  5. TITLE: Lament for Lives Lost: Rose Schneiderman and the Triangle Fire
    DESCRIPTION: From History Matters -- One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. The victims had been trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. The aftermath of the catastrophe brought grief and recriminations. Protest rallies and memorial meetings were held throughout the city. During one meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House, tension broke out between the working-class Lower East Siders who filled the galleries (and saw class solidarity as the ultimate solution to the problems of industrial safety) and the middle- and upper-class women in the boxes who sought reforms like creation of a bureau of fire prevention. The meeting would have broken up in disorder if not for a stirring speech by Rose Schneiderman, a Polish-born former hat worker who had once led a strike at the Triangle factory. Although she barely spoke above a whisper, Schneiderman held the audience spellbound.
    RESOURCES AVAILABLE: TEXT
    SOURCE: History Matters

  6. TITLE: The Jewish Daily Forward Reports the Triangle Tragedy
    DESCRIPTION: From History Matters -- One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City. The victims had been trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. One of the worst industrial fires in U.S. history, the Triangle fire became a galvanizing symbol of industrial capitalism’s excesses and the pressing need for reform. In its aftermath, a coalition of middle-class reformers and working people secured passage of landmark occupational health and safety laws. The Triangle fire received sensational coverage in all the New York newspapers. This article from the Jewish Daily Forward, printed the day after the fire, emphasized the tragic loss to the Jewish community.
    RESOURCES AVAILABLE: TEXT
    SOURCE: History Matters

  7. TITLE: Minute by Minute: The World’s Account of the Triangle Fire
    DESCRIPTION: From History Matters -- On the warm spring afternoon of March 25, 1911, a small fire broke out in a bin of rags at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory on New York City’s Lower East Side. In less than an hour, 146 people—most of them young immigrant women—died, trapped by blocked exit doors and faulty fire escapes. One of the worst industrial fires in U.S. history, the Triangle fire galvanized working people and middle-class reformers alike, ultimately resulting in the passage of several laws designed to insure workplace safety. The fire received sensational and extensive coverage in all the New York City newspapers. William Gunn Shepherd, a young reporter for the New York World, happened to be at the scene of the fire when it began. From a phone across the street, he gave a minute-by-minute account of the unfolding events to his city editor. The World published them the following day.
    RESOURCES AVAILABLE: TEXT
    SOURCE: History Matters

Additional Media Resources

Triangle Factory Fire -- online exhibit from Cornell University. Includes documents, photographs, and tips for student projects

The Triangle Fire, March 25, 1911 -- From New Deal Network. Includes photographs, taken at the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, from the archives of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire -- From The Encyclopedia of New York City

Remembering Rose Freedman, last survivor of the Triangle Factory fire. Broadcast February 25, 2001

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire -- From NPR

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Trial: A Chronology

How Was the Relationship Between Workers and Allies Shaped by the Perceived Threat of Socialism in the
New York City Shirtwaist Strike, 1909-1910?
-- From Women and Social Movements in the United States

How Did Florence Kelley's Campaign against Sweatshops in Chicago in the 1890s Contribute to State Formation? -- From Women and Social Movements in the United States

The 1912 Lawrence Strike: How Did Immigrant Workers Struggle to Achieve an American Standard of Living? -- From Women and Social Movements in the United States

SAMPLE NEWSPAPER COVERAGE OF THE 1909-10 UPRISING

Additional Instructional Resources

Methods of Reform: The Lowell Mill Girls. From the UMBC Center for History Education, Teaching American History Lesson Plans.

Fire at the Triangle Factory

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 

Fire in the Sky: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Causes and Consequences

Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor

Secondary Resources

Moore, Deborah Dash and David Lobenstine. "Beyond place and ethnicity : the uses of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire." In Remembering the Lower East Side : American Jewish Reflections, eds.  Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c2000. 

Stein, Leon, The Triangle Fire. Cornell University Press, 2001. 

Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Baltimore Museum of Industry
1415 Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230
Phone: (410) 727-4808

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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