Clara Lemlich Award Honorees

The March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire was the most devastating industrial disaster in New York City's history. Located at 23 Washington Place and built by immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, Triangle was considered to be one of the most modern workshops in New York producing women's ready-to-wear dresses. At a time when most clothing was manufactured in traditional sweatshops, Triangle was known for its advanced technology, efficiency, and control of the work process. It was also identified with hostility to organized labor, overcrowding, and problematic safety practices. This combination of modernism and sweatshop labor practices led to catastrophe.

The Triangle fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, mostly immigrant women, who either died in the flames or jumped from a fatal height. Primarily Jewish and Italian, these women worked on the 8th and 9th floors where hundreds of sewing machine operators labored under close supervision and constant pressure to increase productivity. Clothing scraps were everywhere. At 4:30 P.M., five minutes after the bell rang to mark the end of a Saturday work day, a fire was discovered, most likely caused by a discarded cigarette thrown on a pile of cloth. As the workers struggled to escape, they found that the doors to the stairway were chained shut.

The Triangle fire called attention to the sweatshop conditions that characterized the clothing industry and other light manufacturing operations in New York. The city's working class, the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and middle class progressives responded in ways that began to change New York's industrial landscape and its clothing industry. In the aftermath of the fire, Governor John A. Dix appointed a New York State Factory Commission that investigated sweatshop conditions and recommended a wide-ranging series of reforms. These included mandating fire safety practices, regulating working conditions, improving sanitary facilities, encouraging collective bargaining, and limiting the hours of work for women and children.

Most of these reforms were quickly enacted into law. Two decades later during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought similar reforms to the nation. By the end of World War II, it was widely proclaimed that the era of the sweatshop was over. However, when the labor movement was thrown on the defensive during the 1970s and 1980s, the sweatshop reappeared. With increasing numbers of Asian and Latino immigrants in New York and most major coastal cities, the sweatshop once again came to define the non-union clothing industry. In the 1990s, as manufacturing moved off shore in search of even low wage labor, sweatshops migrated to Asia and Latin America.

The Triangle factory site has always had a special relationship to New York University. NYU law students helped in the rescue. After the fire, ownership passed to Frederick Brown, a real estate developer who rented space to New York University for classroom use. In 1929 Percy S. Straus, president of Macy's Department Store, bought the building. As part of a transaction that involved renaming it the Brown Building of Science, Straus donated it to NYU. Today it houses the University's Chemistry Department. In 1991 it was designated as a Federal Trust and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This made it the first building in New York City to be landmarked for historical and cultural reasons. In 2003 the Brown Building was named a New York City landmark.

This exhibition, organized by New York University's Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, on the occasion of the Triangle centennial, tells the story of the fire and its impact on politics, business practices, and labor relations in New York and the nation. Most of the images on display are from the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Other materials are from the collections of NYU's Tamiment Library and the Library of Congress. We thank the staff of the Kheel Center, particularly Media Curator Barbara Morley, for helping to make this exhibition possible.

Triangle Factory Building

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—
after the fire, April 7, 1911.

Brown Brothers Photograph, courtesy Museum of the City of New York