The settlement reached in the 1909 shirtwaist makers strike improved conditions in some garment shops, but not in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located 8 blocks south of Union Square. On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, about five hundred employees were at work making shirtwaists--the high-necked blouses worn by working women of the day. At 4:30 pm there was a muffled explosion. Smoke poured out of eighth-floor windows. Within minutes flames ranged out of control; girls jumped to certain death from windows high above the street; locked exits and a fire escape that buckled under the weight of fleeing workers blocked escape. The fire lasted only eighteen minutes, and killed 146 workers, most of them Jewish and Italian teenaged girls.
The tragedy shocked and outraged the nation, and out of the crucible of the Triangle Fire a strong working class movement grew. It pushed politicians to accept a new notion of the responsibilities of government. The extensive work done by the commission set up to investigate the fire--the New York State Factory Investigating Commission--ultimately resulted in passage of thirty-six new labor laws, the foundation of New York State's Industrial code, and an industrial safety model for the nation.
Visit the comprehensive Kheel
Center exhibit about the Triangle Fire.