Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, in New York City a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One of the worst tragedies in American history it was know as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It was a disaster that took the lives of 146 young immigrant workers. A fire that broke out in a cramped sweatshop that trapped many inside and killed 146 people.
This tragedy pointed out the negatives of sweatshop conditions of the industrialization era. It emphasized the worst part of its times the low wages, long hours, and unsanitary working conditions were what symbolized what sweatshops were all about. These conditions were appalling, and no person should ever be made to work in these conditions.
Before this tragedy occurred the suffering of the workers was very evident. Take for instance this first hand account by Sadie Frowne.
My name is Sadie Frowne. I work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop. I am new at the work and the foreman scolds me a great deal. I get up at half-past five oclock every morning and make myself a cup of coffee on the oil stove. I eat a bit of bread and perhaps some fruit and then go to work. Often I get there soon after six oclock so as to be in good time, though the factory does not open till seven.
At seven oclock we all sit down to our machines and the boss brings to each one the pile of work that he or she is to finish during the daywhat they call in English their stint. This pile is put down beside the machine and as soon as a garment is done it is laid on the other side of the machine. Sometimes the work is not all finished by six oclock, and then the one who is behind must work overtime.
The machines go like mad all day because the faster you work the more money you get. Sometimes in my haste I get my finger caught and the needle goes right
through it. It goes so quick, though, that it does not hurt much. I bind the finger up with a piece of cotton and go on working. We all have accidents like that.
All the time we are working the boss walks around examining the finished garments and making us do them over again if they are not just right. So we have to be careful as well as swift. But I am getting so good at the work that within a year I will be making $7 a week, and then I can save at least $4.50 a week. I have over $200 saved now.
The machines are all run by foot power, and at the end of the day one feels so weak that there is a great temptation to lie right down and sleep.
Or for instance a statement taken by Wirt Silkes a women who worked in a sweatshop and her opinion on sweatshop conditions, There are some roomy and cheerful shops in the city. But there are scores, and hundreds, that are not roomy and cheerful.
As well as this exert from My First Job by Rose Cohen, Seven oclock came around and everyone worked on. I wanted to rise as father had told me to do and go home. But I had not the courage to stand up alone. I kept putting off going from minute to minute. My neck felt stiff and my back ached. I wished there were a back to my chair so that I could rest against it a little. When the people began to go home it seemed to me that it had been night a long time.
Clara Lemlich wrote in Life in the Shop, her first hand experience. First let me tell you something about the way we work and what we are paid. There are two kinds of work-regular, that is salary work, and piece work. The regular work pays about $6 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7 oclock in the morning and they stay at them until 8 oclock at night, with just one-half hour for lunch in that time.
The shops, well, there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever gets to that is the front row, nearest the window. The girls at all the other rows of machines back in the shops have to work by gaslight, by day as well as by night. Oh, yes, the shops keep the work going at night, too.
The bosses in the shops are hardly what you would call educated men, and the girls to them are part of the machines they are running. They yell at the girls and they call them down even worse than I imagine the Negro slaves were in the South.
There are no dressing rooms for the girls in the shops. They have to hang up their hats and coats-such as they are- on hooks along the walls. Sometimes a girl has a new hat. It never is much to look at because it never costs more than 50 cents, that means that we have gone for weeks on two-cent lunches-dry cake and nothing else.
The shops are unsanitary-thats the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. Whenever we tear or damage any of the goods we sew on, or whenever it is found damaged after we are through with it, whether we have done it or not, we are charged for the piece and sometimes for a whole yard of material.
At the beginning of every slow season, $2 is deducted from our salaries. We have never been able to find out what this is for.
These accounts are from only some of the many of thousands of people who had to work in sweatshops. There needed to be something done. That something came in the form of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. As horrific as this tragedy was it brought about many good things. Such things as reform policies, organized worker unions, and other referendums. Plus many, protests about the sweatshops and other places of horrible working conditions.
Protesting aroused and bewildered and angry people concerned with the greed that made this possible. People demanded justice and restitution, as well as legislation
changes that would prevent further tragedies. Workers hurried to union offices to offer testimonies, support, and demanded that Triangle owners Harris and Blanck be brought to trial. Showing clearly how much organized union owners could have. These powerful unions would make workers more understandable and conscious of their rights and easier to obtain safer working conditions.
Such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which proposed and official day of mourning. The grief stricken city of New York gathered at churches, synagogues, as well as the streets. In the days following, bringing many together to mourn as well as to form labor unions. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union did all of this, while also organizing a rally against the unsafe working conditions that led to the disaster. Meanwhile the Womens Trade Union started a campaign to investigate sweatshop conditions such as those among Triangle workers.
Following the horrible events of the fire many changes were made, The Governor of New York appointed the Factory Investigating Commission, this commission conducted a series of statewide hearings that resulted in the passage of important factory safety legislation. On June 30 of 1911 a Legislation Act was passed putting this commission into law, and formed the following commission:
Senator Robert F. Wagner,
Senator Charles M. Hamilton,
Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith,
Assemblyman Edward d. Jackson,
Assemblyman Cyrus W. Phillips,
Mr. Simon Brentano,
Mr. Robert E. Dowling,
Miss Mary E. Dreier
The legislation allowed this commission to check existing conditions under which manufacturing was conducted in factory like settings. Included in the checks were
health conditions, safety concerns, and security issues. Building structures, law ordinances, and the best interests of the public were, as well checked on by this commission.
The Joint Board of Sanitary Control was also put together to set and maintain standards of sanitation in the workplace. Clothing industry representatives and the workers union represented this Board. The Factory Investigating Commission as well as the Joint Board of Sanitary Control worked hand in hand to try and stop future sweatshop conditions, as well as setting new and higher standards in the workplace.
In all twenty-three individual civil suits were brought against the owners of the Asch Building. Almost two years to the day of the disaster Harris and Blanck settled and paid $75 dollars per victim in the fire. Even though it does not seem to be enough, it was a start to something. Hopefully the responsibility of these sweatshops will fall on their owners and these commissions will hold them and only them accountable for their actions. But it does not stop there not only were the owners being held accountable, the city officials themselves were also held accountable because of improper safety regulations. Showing that the city itself should be at fault for not enforcing safety regulations for such things as fire escapes, that were not in working order. These unprecedented circumstances just lay down the blueprint for what is now the correct way to set regulations for industrial factory conditions.
With these commissions in place, tougher legislation, laws, ordinances, and precedents that will be in place working together to rid the world of these horrible sweatshops. As well as the devastating circumstances they can bring in such occurrences as fires or other natural disaster events. Even though almost ninety years later sweatshops still exist. These sweatshops at the present day are almost unheard of here in America, but continue to be in foreign third world countries. As horrible as it is to
say the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire turned out to be a very helpful life changing turn around for hundreds of thousands of people, it turns out that many positives have come out of it. Its just too bad that such a tragedy had to come about to make such significant changes.