One of the most infamous tragedies in American manufacturing history occurred in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 when a fast-moving blaze spread through a New York City garment factory, resulting in the deaths of 146 people. When workers—mostly immigrant women in their teens and 20s—found some exit doors locked, jammed narrow staircases and a fire escape collapsed, they jumped from the ten-story building to a gruesome death.

On December 4, 1911, the company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, faced first and second-degree manslaughter charges after months of extensive coverage in press. Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper with its sensational "yellow" journalism stories led the way. Vivid reports of women hurling themselves from the building to certain death were widely reported. The trial was high drama with counsel for the defense Max Steuer convincing the jury that the testimony of a key witness and survivor of the fire had been coached. The two men were acquitted.

More than an industrial disaster story, the narrative of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire has become a touchstone, and often a critique, of capitalism in the United States. "The tragedy still dwells in the collective memory of the nation and of the international labor movement,” reads the text of an online exhibition from Cornell University's Kheel Center. “The victims of the tragedy are still celebrated as martyrs at the hands of industrial greed." Questions surrounding the details of the story rise to the surface and show how history is trafficked sometimes in service to one agenda or another.

Shirtwaists, tailored blouses of the 1890s and early 1900s, became especially popular with working-class women because, unlike a full dress, they were easy to clean and offered freedom of movement. (NMAH)

Was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a sweatshop run by greedy owners?

Sweatshops were common in the early New York garment industry. An 1895 definition described a sweatshop operator as an "…employer who underpays and overworks his employees, especially a contractor for piecework in the tailoring trade." This work often took place in small, dank tenement apartments. Sweatshops were (and continue to be) a huge problem in the hypercompetitive garment industry.

The Triangle Waist Company was not, however, a sweatshop by the standards of 1911. It was a modern factory for its time, occupying about 27,000 square feet on three floors in a brightly lit 10-year-old building, and employing about 500 workers. Triangle had modern well-maintained equipment, including hundreds of belt-driven sewing machines mounted on long tables and run from floor-mounted shafts.

Of course, even work in a legitimate factory can be monotonous, grueling, dangerous and poorly paid. Most of the workers killed in the fire were women in their late teens or early 20s. The youngest were two 14-year-old girls. It was not unusual in 1911 for girls that young to work, and even today 14-year-olds—and even preteens—can legally perform paid manual labor in the United States under certain conditions.

Around 1910, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) began to gain traction in their effort to organize women and girls, such as those who worked at the Triangle factory. Labor leaders like Clara Lemlich displaced many of the conservative male unionists and pushed for socialism and a more equitable division of profits. While calling the Triangle Waist Company owners 'greedy' was not a perfect assessment, it’s true that they were not saints. Blanck and Harris were hard-driving entrepreneurs who, like many other business owners, cut corners as they relentlessly pushed to grow their enterprise.

Union banner
Around 1910 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) began to organize women and girls, such as those who worked at the Triangle factory. (NMAH)

What caused the fire?

Attributing the cause of the fire to negligence on the part of the owners fit the media narrative of the time. Period newspapers reported several different causes of the fire, including poorly maintained equipment. Court testimony attributed the source of the blaze to a fabric scrap bin, which led to a fire that spread explosively—fed by all the lightweight cotton fabric (and material dust) in the factory.

Despite rules forbidding smoking, the fire was probably ignited by a discarded cigarette or cigar. Few women smoked in 1911 so the culprit was likely one of the cutters (a strictly male job). Like many other garment shops, Triangle had experienced fires that were quickly extinguished with water from pre-filled buckets that hung on the walls. Neither the owners, nor the landlord, invested in extra firefighting systems like sprinklers. While the contents of the factory were highly combustible, the building itself was considered fireproof (and survived the fire without structural damage). Triangle dealt with fire hazards to their equipment and inventory by buying insurance. Workplace safety in this period was not yet a priority.

The media coverage of the Triangle factory fire also marked the rise of progressive reformers and a turning point in the politics of New York's democratic political machine, Tammany Hall. The political machine woke up to the needs, and increasing power, of Jewish and Italian working-class immigrants. Affluent reformers such as Frances Perkins, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Anne Morgan also pushed for change. While politicians still looked out for the interests of moneyed elite, the stage was being set for the rise of labor unions and the coming of the New Deal.

Triangle had modern well-maintained equipment, including hundreds of belt-driven sewing machines, like this Singer sewing machine from about 1920, mounted on long tables and run from floor-mounted shafts. (NMAH)

Were workers demanding safer conditions?

In the early 1900s, workers, banding together in unions to gain bargaining power with the owners, struggled to create lasting organizations. Most of the garment workers were impoverished immigrants barely scraping by. Putting food on the table and sending money to families in their home countries took precedence over paying union dues. Harder yet, the police and politicians sided with owners and were more likely to jail strikers than help them.

Despite the odds, Triangle workers went on strike in late 1909. The walkout expanded, becoming the Uprising of 20,000—a citywide strike of predominantly women shirtwaist workers. The workers pressed for immediate needs—more money, a 52-hour work week, and a better way for dealing with the unemployment that came with seasonal apparel change. The workers directed less pressure at gaining safer shops.

Blanck and Harris were extremely anti-union. They eventually gave in to pay raises, but would not make the factory a "closed shop" that would employ only union members.

Had the owners followed the law, would lives have been spared?

The Triangle factory fire was truly horrific, but few laws and regulations were broken. Blanck and Harris were accused of locking the secondary exits (in order to stop employee theft), and were tried for manslaughter. New York's building codes were outdated at a time when entrepreneurs were finding new (and sometimes unsafe) uses for its high-rise buildings.

Instead of tall buildings warehousing dry goods with just a few clerks inside, as in the past, buildings were now housing factories with hundreds of workers. What few building codes existed were woefully inadequate and underenforced. Outrage over the fire motivated politicians in New York and around the country to pass new laws better regulating and safeguarding human life in the workplace.

Cash register from Marshall Field's, 1914. At the turn of the century a shopping revolution swept the nation as consumers flocked to downtown palace department stores, attracted by a wide selection of goods sold at inexpensive prices in luxurious environments. (NMAH)

What is the most significant lesson of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?

Today few realize the role that American consumerism played in the tragedy. At the turn of the century a shopping revolution swept the nation as consumers flocked to downtown palace department stores, attracted by a wide selection of goods sold at inexpensive prices in luxurious environments. The women in the factory made ready-to-wear clothing, the shirtwaists that young women in offices and factories wanted to wear. Their labor, and low wages, made fashionable clothing affordable.

Seeking efficiency, manufacturers applied mass production techniques in increasingly large garment shops. Entrepreneurs prospered, and even working-class people could afford to buy stylish clothing. When tragedy struck (as happens today), some blamed manufacturers, some pointed to workers and others criticized government.

In a paradox of action, Americans pushed for both lower prices and safer, better-regulated factories, throughout the 1900s. Today attitudes have largely changed. While workplace tragedies like the Imperial Food Co. fire of 1991 in North Carolina and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010 in West Virginia have taken the lives of many, the desire for regulation and enforcement has abated. The pressure for low prices, however, remains intense.

An anti-sweatshop advertisement from the Saturday Evening Post, 1902—an era when factory work often took place in small, dank tenement apartments. (NMAH)

What became of the owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck?

Before the deadly fire, Blanck and Harris had been lauded by their social peers as well as those in the garment industry as the “shirtwaist kings.” In 1911 they lived in luxurious houses and like other affluent people of their time had numerous servants, were philanthropic, and were pillars of their community. While Blanck and Harris successfully escaped conviction in the Triangle manslaughter trial, their apparel kingdom began to crumble.

They became the scapegoats, even though a lack of government regulation and enforcement, as well as consumers demanding low prices could as easily have been blamed.

Blanck and Harris tried to pick up after the fire. They opened a new factory but their business was not as successful. In 1913 Blanck was arrested for locking a door during working hours in the new factory. He was convicted and fined $20.

In 1914, Blanck and Harris were caught sewing counterfeit National Consumer League anti-sweatshop labels into their shirtwaists. Around 1919 the business disbanded. Harris ran his own small shop until 1925 and Blanck set up a variety of new ventures with Normandie Waist the most successful. Not surprisingly, the Blanck and Harris families worked at forgetting their day of infamy. California artist Susan Harris was surprised, at age 15, to discover her grandfather's notoriety—an owner of the Triangle Waist Company.

A version of this article was originally published on the "Oh Say Can Your See" blog of the National Museum of American History.