As the fire blazed in the Asch Building,
New Yorkers—many of whom had just been strolling in Washington Square Park— watched in horror as Triangle Shirtwaist Factory employees jumped to their deaths.
Only thirteen months earlier, in November 1909, the city had witnessed these and other workers struggle against the exploitative labor practices that many immigrants faced in New York’s garment industry. Infuriated by crowded spaces, long hours, and dangerous, unsanitary conditions, some 20,000 shirtwaist workers went out on strike, demanding better working conditions and recognition for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). The “Uprising of the 20,000” alerted the public to their demands and their capacity for organizing. Although the strike improved conditions for many in the city’s garment industry, key companies such as Triangle held out against demands for factory safety and union recognition. Then tragedy struck. The Triangle fire quickly came to symbolize the need for union organizing and labor protections.
Above: Friends and relatives identifying bodies at the Twenty-sixth Street pier morgue after the fire, 1911. Photograph. International Ladies Garment Workers Union Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University
The fire made headlines throughout the city, but New Yorkers’ reactions were by no means unanimous. The event at once inspired public protests, charity relief efforts, union building, and legal reforms. Public outcry pushed the New York State legislature to create the Factory Investigating Commission (FIC), which brought together government, organized labor, and social reformers. In the three years of its activity, the FIC pushed through over 30 bills, addressing issues such as workplace fire safety, women’s labor, and factory inspections.
Grief and remorse over the Triangle tragedy consumed New York City. In large public actions, modes of memorializing the victims revealed the chasm that divided the city’s working class from its upper and middle classes. While many workers and their allies viewed the fire as a catalyst for change and political protest, some in the middle and upper classes, fearing unrest, sought instead to control working-class outrage and speed the process of healing and forgetting.
Margaret Fraser, Samantha Gibson, Megan Innes,
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Alana Rosen, and Ilana Weltman