These photos are from the Library of Congress collection and show some of the scenes associated with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911. The first killed 146 people, mostly young women. It is one of the events that spurred the suffrage movement of that decade.
Few stories in the history of American labor or suffrage are more poignant or more tragic than the fire that killed 146 workers, mostly young women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan’s garment district on March 25, 1911.
Few today, of course, would have any recollection of any event surrounding it.
But when it happened, thousands of people could tell personal stories.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located near Washington Square and had gained notoriety for the way its workers had led the general garment workers strike of 1909. That strike resulted in much-needed concessions for many of the workers of that time, even though they were merely women. That was the attitude that much of America and most of organized labor had toward these workers, many of whom were immigrants.
The workers were not merely women, of course. They were human beings, trying to support themselves and their families with difficult, tedious and mind-numbing work for long hours and in bad conditions.
The main goal of the 1909 general strike was to try to get factory owners to recognize unions for these women as collective bargaining agents. That happened in some places, but it didn’t happen at Triangle. Eventually, the workers went back to work with some improvement in conditions.
One thing that didn’t improve at Triangle was the suspicion on the part of the owners that some of the Triangle workers might be stealing. The possessions of the workers were thoroughly searched every night before they left, and to ensure the integrity of the search, most of the exits were locked. When a fire broke out just before closing on a Saturday afternoon in March, many of the workers had no way of escaping.
Triangle was located within site of Washington Square, and the streets on that Saturday were filled with people. Many of those on the outside saw smoke or fire before some on the inside did. And things got worse. As the flames came out of the window and screams began to be hear, many thousands crowded around, waiting for the horse-drawn firetrucks to arrive. When they did, their ladders could not reach the ninth floor were most of those who were trapped waited desparately.
The scenes of horror worsened as some women jumped out the windows, hoping the nets the firemen held would catch them and break their fall. They didn’t.
By the time the fire was brought under control, 145 people had died. One additional person died in a hospital a few days later.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is connected with suffrage in two ways. The first is that during the 1909 strike, suffragists stood with the factory workers on the picket lines and gave them their support. Many of these workers, in turn, joined the suffrage movement.
The second connection is that the fire put a match to the myth that men were the natural protectors of women — an argument that was made by those who did not thing that voting was necessary or desirable for women.
Where were the men who should have been protecting those girls, the suffragists could now ask.
They were locking the doors.
• PBS has put together an excellent American Experience program on the Triangle Fire.
• Listen to the NPR program on the Triangle Fire.
• And HBO has this documentary of the workers strike and the fire. A trailer is below:
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