1911 Conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Background

Exterior Of The Asch Building, about 1910
Exterior Of The Asch Building, about 1910. Museum of The City of New York/Getty Image

To understand the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, it's helpful to get a picture of the conditions at the factory before and at the time of the fire.

Most of the workers were young immigrants, Russian Jews or Italians, with some German and Hungarian immigrants as well. Some were as young as 12 to 15 years old, and often sisters or daughters and mother or cousins were all employed at the shop.

The 500-600 workers were paid at piecework rates, so that pay for any individual depended on the skill of the work done (men mostly did the collars, which was a more highly paid task) and how quickly one worked. Pay averaged around $7 per week for most, with some paid as high as $12 per week.

At the time of the fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not a union shop, though some workers were members of the ILGWU.  The 1909 "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" and the 1910 "Great Revolt" had led to growth in the ILGWU and to some preferential shops, but the Triangle Factory was not among those.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were concerned about employee theft. On the ninth floor there were only two doors; one was routinely locked, leaving open only the door to the stairwell to the Greene Street exit. That way, the company could inspect handbags and any packages of workers on their way out at the end of the work day.

There were no sprinklers in the building. There had been no fire drills to practice response to fires, though a fire expert, hired in 1909 on the advice of an insurance company, had recommended implementing fire drills. There was one fire escape which proved not very strong, and an elevator.

On March 25, as most Saturdays, workers had begun to clear the work areas and fill bins with fabric scraps.

Garments and cloth were in piles, and there would have been considerable fabric dust from the cutting and sewing process. Most of the light inside the building came from gas lamps.

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