America's Catalyst Fire: The Triangle Fire
Life in America changes mostly gradually, such as with the adoption of new technologies and inventions, but the most drastic changes come from a single catalyst. The early 1900’s America was teeming with resistance to the social and economic injustices that befell the industrial laborers. Worker rights began to improve bit by bit, but the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was the incendiary force that pushed the progressive movement to a place that allowed sweeping reforms.
The fuel of the progress began years before the actual fire on March 25, 1911. Some men, but especially women, of all economic standing and ethnicities joined together and took to the streets in marches and protests. The spearhead of this campaign for worker rights was the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). This group organized many of the campaigns in New York against what they considered the “Tyranny of the foreman”. The WTUL was not in itself a workers union but a group that pushed factory workers to adopt the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
The New York winter of 1909 saw the largest American workers’ protest to date. With over twenty thousand employees out of their workrooms in the middle of the industries busy seasons the factory owners were forced to react. Almost all factories moved to acknowledge the ILGWU and work with them on the issues of wages, hours, and working conditions which were often so cramped that a young Russian immigrant named Rose Cohen described as being “So close to [her] on each side [she] felt the heat of their bodies." After the strike the conditions began to improve in the factories across New York, at least in those which accepted the ILGWU; the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was not one of them.
The deplorable conditions continued on the eighth and ninth floors of the building the factory called its home. These undeniably created an environment ripe for potential disasters. Arthur E. McFarlane said that despite most loft buildings being labeled “fire-proof” the factories, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were “loaded with rolls of flimsy lawn and muslin, cards of lace, and tissue paper." Those materials were juxtaposed by gallons of grease used for lamps and the sewing machines creating a highly flammable environment. After the fire it became clear to the public that the building being fire-proof does not make everything inside of it fire-proof as well. The majority of other factories across the city were in far worse shape than the Triangle Factory as many had wooden staircases and no fire escapes.
These conditions were never addressed by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris the two owners of the company. It is however no surprise as they “did not even have a roster of all the employees who worked daily in their factory." After the incident Blanck claimed that in regards to the doors that the “keys were tied to the knobs and that he made it his personal duty every morning to go to each door and see that it was open." This is in stark contrast to the claims of Rosey Safron, a worker who narrowly escaped the eigth floor. Safron describes that she ran to the door on the Washington Place side and that the “door was locked and immediately there was a great jam of girls before it."
Despite being presented with a charred bolt used to lock the doors at the factory by District Attorney Charles Whitman the jury in the case against Blanck and Harris find them both not guilty in the charges of manslaughter. In the end no one is charged in any way for the 146 dead. This atrocity is summed up succinctly by a Socialist publication name the New York Call; “There are no guilty. There are only the dead, and the authorities will forget the case as speedily as possible." Despite the hopes for the public to quickly forget the incident the people of New York gather in a force thought unthinkable. On April 6, 1911 the funeral procession for the seven unidentified bodies brought together 350,000 marchers and over 400,000 who observed the parade. The New York Times called it a clear “expression of the working people’s grief."
This momentum was carried across the board as new legislation swept across the state of New York. Quickly the Committee on Safety was formed in order to investigate factories in Manhattan and the other key cities. Alfred E. Smith, a member of the committee who eventually went on to become the Democratic candidate for president in 1928, worked on a commission tasked with revamping the factory inspection system. They found that before the state had no true way of knowing when new factories were formed and that the “factory-inspection forces were so small that the inspections in some cities were made only once in two years." With this new committee and a state populace deeply aware of the dangers of factory conditions New York fought to right its wrongs.
It took the horror of the Triangle Fire to push the people of New York to the brink. They took it as an opportunity to prevent another disaster by pushing forward the fight for better working conditions, shorter working hours, and raised wages. For me the strangest part of the entire ordeal is that no one took any responsibility for what happened to the men and women who died in this tragedy. Through these documents we are given an insight into the malpractices of those involved and we can see how this could have been avoided. However awful the disaster was it paved the way for worker rights for generations to come.
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