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It is difficult to know with any certainty what was going  through the minds of the men gathered on Wall Street that day.  It was not the kind of meeting for which minutes are taken or a written record preserved, and I'm not the kind of person to try to "get inside the heads" of long-dead people.  I don't know what feelings the members of the Manufacturers' Association were experiencing when they met to discuss how to respond to the emergency fire protection rules for their factories that had been laid down by Fire Chief Edward  F. Croker in March, 1911, but I will speculate that panic wasn't among those feelings.  They had too many contacts in the Tammany organization, too many public officials who, while perhaps not corrupt, were at least beholden to them, owed, to some degree, their offices to them.  And plenty who believed, as a judge had told women strikers arrested during the Uprising of the 20,000 a few months before, that such interference in commerce was "against God and Nature".  

There were still plenty of favors to call in, markers to cash, and arms to twist before there was any need for panic.

November 22, 1909
It wasn't supposed to have ended like this.  This was not at all what the organizers had planned.  It was just supposed to be a rally, a little cheerleading to drum up support for efforts of a union local striking against three large garment-making factories.  Any action was supposed to be arrived at only after careful, sober deliberation by the (mostly male) leadership.  But when it became apparent during the rally staged by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union that a rousing speech by American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers was only going to be followed by yet more speakers, almost all male and urging care and caution, a 23-year-old immigrant garment worker and member of the striking Local 25 of the ILGWU named Clara Lemlich, shouting in Yiddish that she wanted to say a few words, elbowed her way to the stage and seized the podium, where she shouted to the crowd:

"I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here to decide is whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared—now!
Jewish Women's Archive: Uprising of the 20,000 (1909)

The crowd erupted in cheers of agreement, a strike vote was immediately called and a general strike declared on the spot.  The next day garment workers across New York City in the predominantly female shirtwaist-making industry walked off the job and the Uprising of the 20,000 was under way.

The next morning, throughout New York’s garment district, more than 15,000 shirtwaist makers walked out. They demanded a 20-percent pay raise, a 52-hour workweek and extra pay for overtime. The local union, along with the Women’s Trade Union League, held meetings in English and Yiddish at dozens of halls to discuss plans for picketing. When picketing began the following day, more than 20,000 workers from 500 factories had walked out. More than 70 of the smaller factories agreed to the union’s demands within the first 48 hours.
AFLCIO: The Uprising of 20,000 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The small and medium-sized factories mostly settled within the first month, but the large factories held out, their owners forming an alliance and vowing to use whatever means necessary, including hired thugs and a corruptible legal system, to avoid settling with the union.  Replacement workers were brought in, and when they, too, went out on strike, more replacements were found.   The strike would drag on through the holiday season of 1909 and into 1910, attracting moral and financial support from such unlikely quarters as suffragettes and wealthy society matrons from families with names like Morgan and Vanderbilt.  In the end, though, the union failed to break some of the largest shirtwaist employers -- including two of the three companies against which the original Local 25 strike had been called, the Leiserson Company and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company -- and on February 15, 1910, with a thousand strikers still on the picket lines, the general strike was called off and the last of the shirtwaist makers went back to work.

Though not a complete victory, the uprising achieved significant, concrete gains. Out of the Associated Waist and Dress Manufacturers’ 353 firms, 339 signed contracts granting most demands: a fifty-two-hour week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no discrimination against union loyalists, provision of tools and materials without fee, equal division of work during slack seasons, and negotiation of wages with employees. By the end of the strike, 85 percent of all shirtwaist makers in New York had joined the ILGWU. Local 25, which began the strike with a hundred members, now counted ten thousand. Furthermore, the uprising laid the groundwork for industrial unionism in the garment industry. Inspired by the shirtwaist makers, sixty thousand cloak makers—men, this time—launched the Great Revolt in the summer of 1910, and other garment strikes ensued across the country. After five years of unrest, the "needle trades" emerged as one of the best organized in the United States.
Jewish Women's Archive: Uprising of the 20,000 (1909)

The men's strike, the Great Revolt, ended in September, 1910 with a settlement called the Protocol of Peace.  Of it, negotiator Louis Brandeis said, "...both parties recognized that means and methods for improving the difficult relationship of employer and employee were proper subjects for study, for invention, and for experiment."  One of those experiments was the formation of a body of representatives from both manufacturers and workers, the Joint Board of Sanitary Control, to study working conditions in the Cloak, Suit, and Skirt Manufacturers' Protective Association's over-1,700 factories.

Cluttered fire escapes that empty into an enclosed courtyard with no means of egress

One of the issues upon which the  Joint Board of Sanitary Control quickly focused its attention was the risk of fire in the industry's shops.   The board's first order of business was to inspect every factory under its jurisdiction.  The first round of those inspections was begun in January of 1911 and was completed by March 1st that year, with a second round of follow-up inspections begun immediately.

The board's report detailed the conditions uncovered in its first round of inspections in January and February.  It found that 1,414 of the association's 1,738 shops were located in so-called loft buildings of not less than six stories, buildings never intended as high-occupancy manufacturing facilities but converted to that purpose due to a scarcity of proper manufacturing space.  Of those, 661 shops employing well over twenty-three thousand people were located above the sixth floor.  The report noted:

With 23,832 persons in the trade working above the sixth floor, 60 or more feet above the sidewalk, the following dangerous conditions have been found in all of the shops without exception:

  1. All loft building floors are divided and subdivided into many sections by flimsy wooden, highly infammable partitions, offering ready material for flames, and at the same time obstructing passages to exits.
  1. All shops contain inflammable materials, floors are littered with scraps of woolen and cotton goods and filled with large pine packing boxes.
  1. Of the 1,414 loft buildings in which our shops are located, but 128 are provided with automatic sprinklers, and in but 15 is there some sort of fire drill.

The above dangerous conditions are prevalent in all shops.   It is almost impossible to remedy there evils in one industry with the best wishes of all concerned.  To make the radical changes in loft construction and arrangement the power of the State must be invoked.  This is, however, not the case in the following defects in fire-escape facilities as found in some of the shops:

        Shops in buildings without ANY fire escapes...63
        Fire escapes with no or badly placed drop ladders..236
        Shops with openings to fire-escapes obstructed...150
        Doors in shops opening in...1,379
        Doors in shops found to be LOCKED during working hours...25
        Chemical fire extinguishers lacking...1,603
        Unsafe treads on stairs...12

First Annual Report of the  Joint Board of Sanitary Control in the Cloak, Suit and Skirt Industry of Greater New York (1911)
(all emphasis in the original)

Fire escapes with no ladders or stairs to the ground.

That these conditions existed in the factories was not a surprise to those familiar with the early-twentieth century New York City garment factories, those places that inspired the term "sweatshops".  Fires in these workplaces, with accompanying loss of life, were not uncommon, such as a fire in Newark, New Jersey in November, 1910 that killed 25 workers.  

The month before the Joint Board began its inspections, New York City Fire Chief Edward Croker had testified before the state Investigating Committee on Corrupt Practices and insurance Companies Other Than Life.  Asked about the limits of the fire department's ability to fight a fire in taller buildings, Chief Croker replied that they were unable to combat a fire above 85 feet, or about seven stories.  He further commented:

I think if you want to go into the so-called workshops which are along Fifth Avenue and west of Broadway and east of Sixth Avenue -- 12-, 14-, or 15-story buildings they call workshops -- you will find it very interesting to see the number of people in one of these buildings with absolutely not one fire protection, without any means of escape in case of fire.
Casey Cavanaugh Grant, "Triangle Fire Stirs Outrage and Reform", NFPA Journal, May/June 1993 (pdf)

It was in this environment that Chief Croker issued the emergency fire rules for the loft factories in March, 1911.  The move rallied the manufacturers to organize their campaign against the regulations as an unwarranted interference in the conduct of commerce.  The imposition of such unreasonable costs might even make operation in New York so expensive as to force them to move their factories to Philadelphia.  The factory owners found sympathetic ears in the city government, and Croker was shortly forced to withdraw his emergency order.


The Asch Building.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the top three floors

March 25, 1911
Just a few days after the emergency fire rules were rescinded, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the ten-story Asch Building at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place near Washington Square, where the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, with some 600 employees, occupied cramped quarters on the top three floors.

Shortly before the 4:45 pm quitting time scraps of cloth clippings in wooden boxes stored under cutting tables are believed to have caught fire, possibly from a carelessly-disposed cigarette.  The men working the cutting tables ran to get buckets of water to extinguish the fire -- the company's 'fire protection' consisted of 27 buckets distributed among the three floors -- but before they could douse it, patterns and fabric hung on wires above the tables caught fire and the flames began to spread rapidly.

Bernstein and several cutters attempted to extinguish the flames using buckets of water. Before they could put out the blaze, patterns that were hanging on long wires used to store cut fabric began to bum. Cutter Max Rothen began tearing down the flaming cloth, but the fire was ahead of him and spreading rapidly.

Wood tables and chairs, the primary furnishings, ignited. Oil that had dripped from sewing machines covered the wood floor, and bundles of flimsy, combustible cloth and tissue paper lay everywhere.
Casey Cavanaugh Grant, "Triangle Fire Stirs Outrage and Reform", NFPA Journal, May/June 1993 (pdf)

In short order, the fire was out of control.  There was no longer any option of fighting it; the only course now was escape.  There were three ways out of the eighth floor: two stairways, the elevators, and an exterior fire escape.  One stairwell and one set of elevators were located next to each other at opposite corners of the building, one adjacent to Greene Street and one adjacent to Washington Place.  The narrow, steep wooden stairs were only 33 inches wide, more typical of a none-too-generous stairway in a single-family residence than a commercial building. The door to the Washington Place stairwell, according to accusations of employees who escaped the fire, was locked to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing company property.  All exit doors opened inward.

The exterior fire escape stairs were even worse, only 17 1/2 inches wide, and only went as far as the second floor.  The fire escape, cheaply constructed in order to bring the building in compliance with exit codes for high-occupancy factory spaces, emptied into a small, enclosed courtyard that served principally as an air and light shaft.  It had no means of egress.  

The remaining means of exit, two elevator shafts, with two cars with operators, running as fast as possible, could not come close to accommodating the throngs of people frantically ringing the service bell.  275 people worked on the eighth floor.

The eighth floor book-keeper frantically phoned the tenth floor where the executive offices were located to alert them to the danger.  The 60 tenth floor employees, including the owners of the company, were able to exit to the roof.  A professor and students from an adjacent New York University building helped them escape to the roof of their building and out of harm's way.  

The collapsed fire escape

The book-keeper also attempted to alert the ninth floor, but the calls, routed through the tenth floor switchboard, were never answered.  The first the ninth floor knew of the fire was when smoke and flames began to billow past the windows.  The employees on the ninth floor, some 300 of them, began to rush for the exits.  About 100 people made it down the Greene Street stairs before the fire spread into the stairwell from the eighth floor and cut off that avenue of escape.  The Washington Place stairwell door, as on the eighth floor, was reportedly locked.

With escape via the two stairways blocked, some workers turned to the exterior fire escape, but found that a heavy metal window shutter, jammed open at the eighth floor landing, blocked their way.  Some climbed out around it, but this slowed the flow of traffic and a crowd backed up behind the obstacle and overloaded the fire escape, which pulled away from the building and collapsed, sending bodies -- some with their clothes afire -- falling into the courtyard below.

The elevator operators had begun running as fast as they could as soon as they became aware of the fire.  As the situation grew more desperate, panicked people jammed the elevators up to double their 10-person capacity; some tried to slide down the cables after the elevator cars departed; and still others fell or jumped down the shafts to escape the flames.

On his last trip, Mortillalo could only get as far as the seventh floor; the elevator tracks had become warped from the heat. As the elevator returned to the lobby, he heard the thump of bodies landing on the roof. At the ground-floor level, the roof of Zito s elevator buckled and the elevator was unable to move because of the bodies piled on the roof as people leaped into the elevator shaft
Casey Cavanaugh Grant, "Triangle Fire Stirs Outrage and Reform", NFPA Journal, May/June 1993 (pdf)

And as all this had been going on, other desperate employees, mostly young women, had been leaping out the windows to the streets below.


Bodies ont he sidewalk

The first call to the fire department, from a call box on Greene Street, came just before 4:45pm, followed quickly by additional calls.  The first fire units arrived within minutes.

The first-arriving fire department unit was a horse-drawn pumper from Engine Company 18. Captain Howard Ruch later reported that on arrival, fire was showing from upper windows and that people
had started to jump from windows and ledges.
Battalion Chief Edward Worth arrived early, and within 1 minute ordered a second alarm. Third and fourth alarms were sounded at 4:55 p.m. and 5:10 p.  Eventually, 35 apparatus responded to
the scene.
Casey Cavanaugh Grant, "Triangle Fire Stirs Outrage and Reform", NFPA Journal, May/June 1993 (pdf)

The first firefighters arriving on the scene thought they saw piles of fabric on the sidewalk.  They soon realized, however, they were bodies of girls who had jumped to their deaths.  More would continue to come for the next ten minutes.  The department's ladders could not reach the engulfed floors.  They brought out life nets, but the devices -- so effective in rescuing jumpers from lesser heights in other fires, proved useless in catching people from such a height.  The additional force generated in the extra couple of stories caused the jumpers to tear the nets from the firemen's hands or rip through the canvas fabric, even with a single person jumping -- and people were jumping two, three, or more at a time.  Bodies hit the ground with such force that they broke through iron grates in the sidewalk.  There was ultimately nothing firemen outside could do but avoid the rain of bodies.

Iron grate broken by a falling body

Just after 5:00 p.m., a young girl jumped from the ninth floor and was caught on an obstruction part of the way down the building. A crowd of about 10,000 onlookers watched her plummet to her death, her clothes on fire. It soon became clear that she was the last to jump. More than 60 people lay in the street.
Casey Cavanaugh Grant, "Triangle Fire Stirs Outrage and Reform", NFPA Journal, May/June 1993 (pdf)

Once firefighters were able to get their hoses to the upper floors, the fire was quickly brought under control and extinguished.  By 6:00pm, the recovery of bodies from the upper floors was under way.  Most of these consisted of incinerated victims trapped on the ninth floor.


Marchers in a funeral parade for the victims of the Triangle fire.

One hundred forty-six people died in the fire, predominantly young immigrant women, many just girls in their teens.  Fifty-six were burned beyond recognition; seven were never positively identified and were buried as unknown, identified only by the numbers that had been assigned to their corpses.

On April 15, thousands marched in a funeral parade as the last of the victims, the seven unidentified corpses, were laid to rest.

Two weeks after the fire, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, co-owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, were indicted for manslaughter.  Jury selection began December 4, 1911.  In a judicial atmosphere in which it was very difficult to prove negligence or responsibility against employers for injuries or deaths in the workplace, the entire case ended up hinging on whether the all-male jury believed that Harris and Blanck knowingly locked the exit doors, or ordered them locked.  On December 5, after two hours of jury deliberation, Harris and Blanck were acquitted.  An angry mob shouted "Murderers!" as they exited the courthouse.

Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, co-owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, were indicted for manslaughter, but acquitted by an all-male jury.

Survivors of a number of the victims filed lawsuits against the owners.  The plaintiffs were eventually awarded about $75 per victim.  There was no workers compensation law in New York at the time, a law passed in 1910 having been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.  Private donations came from across the country.  This would prove to be only compensation of any significance the victims received.  Some of the surviving family members of the immigrant girls who died in the fire returned to their homelands, their pursuit of the "American Dream" brought to a tragic end.

The investigation that followed devolved into an orgy of finger-pointing and blame-shifting.  Chief Croker -- prevented, in his opinion, from effectively enforcing fire safety by a disjointed and unorganized distribution of the necessary authorities among diverse and disinterested departments -- testified to the investigators, summarizing the environment:

[Abram I. Elkus] Q. The Building Department is responsible that the building is safe, and that the floor has the carrying capacity?

[Fire Chief Edward  F. Croker] A. The fault in New York City is that there is nobody responsible for anything. The Fire Department is not responsible; the Building Department is not responsible; the Police Department is not responsible; the Health Department is not responsible. If anything happens they are all stepping from under.

Q. In other words, when anything happens, each one blames it on the other department, and it would be your idea, and your recommendation to the Commission, that the responsibility should be fixed upon some one particular head of some one department?

A. Yes.
Key Testimony Before the Fire Investigating Commission Concerning the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Disgusted with the bureaucratic impediments placed in his path in improving fire safety, Croker resigned from the fire department in May, 1911, and started a private company providing fire protection equipment and supplies and offering consulting services -- in particular designing fire drill procedures -- for businesses.  The company still exists today.

Public policy response to the fire was swift.  The Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law, passed in November, 1911, combined six agencies to form the Bureau of Fire Prevention, giving it broad powers to enforce fire safety and expanding the responsibilities and jurisdiction of the fire commissioner.

A new policy body, the New York City Committee on Safety, was established.  Its executive secretary was Frances Perkins, of the New York chapter of the Consumers' League, who had witnessed the women jumping from the building on the day of the fire.  Other members included Henry Stimson and Henry Morgenthau, Sr..  Some of those involved would go on to serve important roles in Franklin Roosevelt's administration and were to become important crafters of the New Deal.  One of their recommendations was the creation of a state commission to investigate conditions in the factories, propose laws, and formulate regulations.

The New York Factory Investigating Commission was created as a result of the committee's recommendations, headed by state and future U.S. senator Robert F. Wagner and numbering among its members state assemblyman Al Smith as vire-chairman, who would go on to become governor of New York and candidate for President; and labor leader Samuel Gompers.  The commission issued its report in 1912, after inspecting 1,836 establishments and interviewing 222 witnesses, recommending measures to be taken to prevent fires in the workplace, prompt notification of authorities in the event of fire, along with notification of employees, allowing them to exit promptly in a manner practiced in regular fire drills, use of materials and design features to prevent the spread of fire, installation of sprinklers, adequate exits and uncluttered work areas to allow quick and efficient evacuation, and better monitoring of the city's workplaces by authorities.

In the four years of the commission's existence -- called by some "the golden era in remedial factory legislation" --36 laws regulating safety in the workplace were enacted, adopting many of the recommendations of the commission and incorporating lessons learned from the Triangle fire.  From the basic fire safety principles such as lighted exit signs, exit doors that open outward, and on-site fire-fighting equipment to  reorganization of the bureaucracy to revision of over-arching policy principles, the commission implemented fundamental changes in the protection of the workforce.  The New York State Department of Labor was completely transformed during the commission's tenure.   Regulations were enacted requiring improvements ranging from better ventilation to fire alarms, fire drills, and sprinkler systems.

The commission eventually turned its attention to the problems that plagued workers in other industries.  Members examined conditions in businesses that involved baking, tobacco, printing, chemicals, and countless other types of manufacturing. They also evaluated factories for far more than fire hazards; men, women, and children often toiled in settings that were overcrowded and unsanitary.  These workers labored long hours that tested their physical endurance and rarely provided sufficient compensation to allow them to escape poverty.  In essence, there were scores of factories throughout the state that had the potential to serve as the setting of another tragedy.
Katie Marsico, The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Its Legacy of Labor Rights

The commission went well beyond the initial impetus of fire safety to propose and see enacted worker protections in areas from fire escapes  and sanitary conditions to the length of permissible workweeks for women and children, to the state's first minimum wage.

Years later, Frances Perkins called the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire "the day the New Deal began."

A detail from "History of the Needlecraft Industry", 1938 mural commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, depicting the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.


And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how regulation came to be.


Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:

1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
The Iroquois Theater Fire
Radium Girls - Part I
Radium Girls - Part II
Radium Girls - Part III
Construction Summer
Red Moon Rising
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I
The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part II
Ground Fault, Interrupted
The Cocoanut Grove
DK GreenRoots: Donora
Confined Spaces
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part I
The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part II
Our Lady of the Angels
The Great Molasses Flood
Toy Safety
The Power of One: Frances Oldham Kelsey
Santa Barbara
The Scofield Mine Explosion

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Mar 21, 2010 at 01:56 PM PDT.

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