my strange connection to the triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911


Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911.  On that day 146 garment workers [most of them under the age of 23] died – either by the fire itself or from jumping out of the window to try to avoid the fire.  Most of the victims were young immigrants of Italian and Jewish descent. The tragedy sparked national outrage and a nationwide debate about safe conditions in the workplace and workers rights.  The event was so impactful it can be considered the September 11 of its day.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied three floors of the Asch Building at Washington Place next to Washington Square Park in Manhattan, a few blocks from where I now live. It is still there and is now a National Historic Landmark.  If you visit, a small plaque commemorates the tragedy.

Like many other textile factories in the early part of the twentieth century, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was a small and overcrowded space where mostly young female workers manufactured thousands of shirtwaists by hand [a shirtwaist was a popular dress that consisted of an upper portion styled like a man’s shirt, with buttons and a turnover collar]. In addition, and again like many other textile factories of the day, it was lacking an evacuation plan in the event of a fire.

Near the close of business on March 25, 1911, a fire began and swept through the floors of the factory. Since the doors were locked by the owners to prevent the workers from leaving on unauthorized breaks, the workers were trapped.  Many died trying to flee the fire and several jumped to their deaths to avoid it.  Fire hoses could only reach the sixth floor, rendering the fire department incapable of effectively fighting the fire.

The two factory owners were indicted for manslaughter, but were later acquitted.  The fire itself and the ensuing trial sparked public outrage and was the catalyst for a push for change.  Union organizers from groups such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Women’s’ Trade Union League rallied. They demanded better working conditions, better workplace safety, and the creation of regulations to ensure businesses complied.  The unions also used the opportunity to demand collective bargaining rights.  [Perhaps this will give Wisconsin some perspective].

Within a year, the New York State Legislature enacted thirty six statutes to regulate workplace fire safety and ventilation.  This action in turn fueled a stronger national movement in workers rights and women’s rights.  The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire had a profound influence on the way the city and country looked a building codes and labor laws, and permanently changed politics in the United States.

As I was looking for a new apartment in 2004, I happened upon a six floor walkup on MacDougal Street near Washington Square.  As I was waiting to see if I had gotten the apartment, out of curiosity I did a Google search on the address.  I found that what was to be my new address had been the home of one of the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.  Emilia Prato, a 21 year-old Italian garment worker, born in the U.S., lived at my address and was killed in the fire.  She is now buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Now that my curiosity was peaked, I decided to do a further search through the victim list.  For eight years, I lived on east eighth street between avenues A and B in the east village [also called “alphabet city”].  Much to my astonishment, a second victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire lived in the east village building I had lived in for eight years.  Yetta Fichtenholtz, an 18 year-old Jewish immigrant who had been born in Russia and came to the United States when she was 11, was also killed in the fire.  She is now buried in Mt Zion Cemetery in Queens.

A strange connection indeed.