The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Updated: May 15, 2022
"I turned around and saw that the fire was already burning at the cutting table. My machine was in the first row next to the cutting table and if my girlfriend did not go home earlier, I am sure I would have been one of the first victims."
Dora Appel Skalka, survivor (from 1957 interview)
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, New York City basked in a pleasant spring morning. Twenty-two-year-old Daisy Lopez eagerly left to go to her job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Daisy had left her home in Kingston, Jamaica after a devastating earthquake and fire in 1907. In January she married Henry Fitze. Fitze was a Swiss native and shortly after their marriage had returned to his home country with money he saved to open an inn. Daisy was filled with excitement as she anticipated joining him in Europe. Though they did not need the money, she accepted a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to earn some extra dollars. Best of all it was payday. The factory occupied the top three floors of the Asch Building (now part of New York University) and it was a short walk from where Daisy lived. The building was located on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street on the Lower East Side of Manhatten not far from Washington Square. The building had a main public entrance and lobby with two elevators and a staircase. Workers used a side entrance where there were another staircase and two freight elevators to take them up to the 8th and 9th floors. Both staircases were insufficiently lit and consisted of a single light at the top of the stairwell shaft.
Shirtwaists were precursors of today's blouses. They were women's garments tailored with the look of a man's shirt. They were looser and more functional than the stiff, high-collared bodices of 19th-century fashion. Popularized by the Gibson Girl, shirtwaists were the choice of independent working women. Demand rose during the early part of the 20th century. Manufacturing the blouse became a competitive industry. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of nearly 450 factories in New York alone making shirtwaists. This led to the garment industry being one of the city's top employers especially of the newly arriving immigrants like Daisy Lopez.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, both Russian immigrants. Besides the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, both men owned several other garment-making shops in the New York area. Like most shops in the garment industry at the turn of the century, they employed a large number of Jewish and Italian immigrant women. Daisy, at age 22, was not unusual as the average age of the workers was 18 - 25. Conditions at the factory were not the best but were not much different than many of the other shops of the time period. The factory floor was overcrowded, not well lit, and poorly ventilated. Workers suffered from the sweltering heat in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winters. Bathrooms were few, and their use was closely monitored by the floor managers. Smoking was not allowed but seldom enforced. Workers were not permitted to converse or sing while working. Doors leading in and out of the factory floors were often locked so that bags could be searched to prevent theft. Work was tedious, grueling, the pay low, and workers were expected to work well into the night during busy times.
Blanck and Harris were notorious, even for that time, for how they treated their employees. In November 1909, female workers for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and two other garment makers went on strike. They were supported by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the newly formed Women's Trade Union League. The strike lasted sixteen weeks and has been dubbed the Uprising of 20,000. The strikers advocated for higher wages and better safety and sanitary conditions. The strikers were successful in getting their demands met. Blanck and Harris, strongly anti-union, fired all the striking workers and brought in replacements. They resisted making the Triangle Shirtwaist Company a union shop, and they failed to make any changes in the working conditions.
Daisy worked on the ninth floor of the Asch building. The main working floors for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were the 8th and 9th. The 10th floor was reserved for the business offices of the owners. Here, tables had been set up for cutting fabric, sewing, and finishing work. Stacks of material, paper patterns, and dust filled the space. The threat of fire was omnipresent in any garment factory. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, buckets were scattered throughout the floor in case of small fires. Most of the time, workers would recall later, the buckets were not filled with water. Such was the case on March 25, 1911. The Asch Building, constructed in 1900, was built with reinforced floors, and at the time it was hailed as a modern "fireproof" building. (Much the same as the Titanic was considered unsinkable.) As per the requirements of the day, there was a fire escape at the rear of the building. The fire escape, though, didn't have any landings and went straight down. In addition, it ended way above the street level.
Though that Saturday was like many other working days, by late afternoon, almost closing time, it would all change. Around 4:30, someone on the 8th floor noticed a blue glow from a bin containing several layers of fabric. In no time, flames were leaping up and setting the paper patterns hanging from the ceiling on fire. Despite efforts by some of the male workers to put the fire out, it spread hot and fast. They tried to use the fire hoses installed in the stairwells, but there was no water pressure. Later investigations showed that the pipes connecting the hoses to the water source had broken and had never been fixed. Panic set in as people rushed towards the doors that were normally locked. The foreman with the key was nowhere to be found.
The owners on the 10th floor were warned by telephone of the situation, but there was no way of notifying those still working on the ninth floor. The owners and their families escaped via the elevator. The elevator was sent back up to begin evacuating people. By the time the elevator returned back, the fire had spread throughout the building. A few workers managed to get onto the elevator, but it would be its last trip. Flames and people falling into the shaft made any attempt of going back up impossible. With one door locked and no hope using the elevator, there was a mad rush for the available stairwell. This proved fruitless as well. The doors swung inward as there were no landings on the stairs. This meant the doors could not be opened because of the crush of people trying to escape. By the time anyone reached the stairs, the fire and the heat blocked any escape going down. The entire stairwell would be gone within minutes. The reinforced floors, deemed fireproof, actually made matters worse by retaining the intensity of the heat inside the building. Meanwhile, windows began shattering as the fire consumed both the 8th and 9th floors. Witnesses recall watching desperate women leap from the windows to escape the fire. Many were able to get out onto the fire escape. The ladder could not bear the load and collapsed underneath everyone who was on it. A group of people did reach the roof and were rescued by quick-acting NYU students from the neighboring building.
The New York Fire Department responded to the blaze. Yet their efforts were hampered by outdated equipment. Buildings in Manhatten had been getting bigger and taller, and the Fire Department equipment could not keep up the pace of change. The pumpers did not create enough water pressure to fight a fire at the top of a 10 story building. Their ladders only reached up to the first six floors. A rescue effort up the stairways was out of the question by the time they arrived. Even attempts to catch jumpers proved unsuccessful. Many of the women jumped hand-in-hand, and they ended up breaking through the nets. Due to the amount of debris and people falling, the Fire Department needed to pull back equipment to limit further damage.
In total, 49 workers burned to death or suffocated. 36 perished in the elevator shafts and stairwells. 58 died from jumping to their death to escape the flames. Three died from their injuries at the hospital. The total number of deaths was 146. Of those, 123 were young immigrant women. It was one of the worst disasters in New York City history.
Outrage over the fire highlighted inadequate building codes and the unsafe working conditions of the garment industry. This outrage translated into a number of Progressive Era reforms. Over time these changes would include such things as mandatory fire drills, fire inspections, working hoses and sprinklers, alarms, and doors that swing out with the flow of traffic.
The fire also united the efforts of unions and reform-minded politicians. Both the city and the state eventually set up commissions to investigate working conditions in all factories and not just the garment industry. The initial intent was fire safety but spread to other areas of labor such as working hours, breaks, sanitation, and health of workers. Frances Perkins who advocated for garment workers and had witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire would later become Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Daisy Lopez went to work on Saturday, March 25, 1911, excited about joining her husband in Switzerland. Tragically, Daisy Lopez would be among those who perished in the fire.
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America: David Von Drehle
What You May Not Know About the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Peter Leibhold (Smithsonian)
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Difficult Lessons Learned on Fire Codes and Safety: Stephen D. Jones (Building Safety Journal Online)
Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire: Cornell University
A Flower For Daisy: Diane Fortuna (NYS Labor)