The Triangle Fire: One Hundred Years After
The Clothing Industry and Immigrant Workers

In the late nineteenth century, New York City emerged as the nation's center for garment-making, producing well over 60% of all the clothes manufactured in the country. One in every three wage workers in the city worked in garment manufacture, and the industry played a major role in the economic life of the city. Millions of immigrants, mostly Italians and Jews from Eastern Europe, came to the city to find work in the clothing industry. Young women predominated in the more than 6,000 small sweatshops and growing numbers of larger factories. In this cut throat competitive industry, workers endured low wages, long hours, unhealthy conditions, and speed-ups. Modern factories like Triangle were ruthless in their pursuit of increased productivity as they sought to produce women's dresses while flexibly respond to changing fashion.


The shirtwaist, a plain and simple dress without frills or ornamentation, became popular with working women during the late nineteenth-century because it was practical and comfortable. It was ready-to-wear and inexpensive to manufacture with sewing machines and semi-skilled workers.

The shirtwaist as advertised in the Strawbridge & Clothier trade catalog (Philadelphia, 1910), courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

This 1910 Singer sewing machine advertised that a woman operator could produce 3,300 stitches per minute.

Courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.

Young Russian Jewish Women at Ellis Island, 1905.

Photographer Lewis Hine, courtesy International Museum of Photography, Rochester, N.Y.

Italian Immigrant clothing worker with her bundle of “homework.” Lower East Side, New York City.

Photographer Lewis Hine, courtesy Kheel Center.

Garment sweatshop, New York City, 1912.

Photographer Lewis Hine, courtesy International Museum of Photography.

Finishing clothing, tenement homework, New York City, 1906.

Photographer Lewis Hine, courtesy International Museum of Photography.

Dressmaking room in a large modern factory similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, c. 1900.

Photographer unknown, courtesy Kheel Center.

Factory Floor Triangle Shirtwaist Company, c. 1908.

Courtesy Kheel Center.

As Pauline Newman, an organizer and labor educator for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union who participated in the Uprising of the 20,000 often explained, this was the dread notice that often went up on the sweatshop wall during the busy season.

Courtesy Kheel Center.