Today’s post marks the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Centennial, honoring the 146 young workers killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in Manhattan. These gruesome and unnecessary deaths – mostly of young immigrant women – outraged the country, solidified support for workers’ unions, particularly the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and led to progressive workplace safety regulations.
Sixty-two people were forced to jump to their deaths from the ninth floor of the burning factory. The rest died in the fire or were pushed down the open elevator shaft by others trying to escape. None were able to escape because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. The owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were tried for manslaughter, but were acquitted in 1914.
Taken from their extensive archival holdings on the fire, Cornell’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at the Industrial and Labor Relations School has an excellent online exhibition, complete with primary sources, interviews with witnesses and survivors, and a information on each person who perished.
Even more remarkable, the remaining six unidentified workers have finally been identified, thanks to genealogist and historian Michael Hirsch, who worked as a co-producer of the upcoming HBO documentary Triangle: Remembering the Fire.
microfilms of mainstream daily newspapers overlooked by researchers before him and to ethnic publications that he asked to have translated, like the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and Il Giornale Italiano. He estimates that he consulted 32 different newspapers.
He looked for articles about people who, in the weeks after the fire, claimed that their relatives were still missing. He then matched what he discovered with census records, death and burial certificates, marriage licenses, and reports kept by unions and charities about funeral and “relief” payments made to the families of the dead. Lastly, he sought out the descendants of three of the unidentified to confirm that the names he found were still mourned as Triangle victims.
The Triangle fire resonates with me, partly because unions are being demonized these days and partly because my grandmother worked in sweatshops just like this in Chicago at the same time the fire happened. I’d like to think that the progressive reforms that came from the Triangle fire helped keep her safe.
Please find a moment today to reflect on the lives that were lost and the progress that was made because of their sacrifices.