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March 25, 2019 7 mins

On this day in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory caught fire, and more than 100 workers died.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of I
Heart Radio. Hi, I'm Eves and Welcome to This Day
in History Class, a show that on covers a little
bit more about history. Every day. Today is March. The

(00:25):
day was March nine eleven. A little before five in
the afternoon that Saturday, a cutter named Isadore Abrahma Witz
at the Triangle Shirt Waist Company factory in New York
noticed a fire in his scrap bin. In a matter
of moments, the fire was blazing, and unfortunately, the safety

(00:47):
standards in the factory were terribly poor, so a lot
of workers didn't make it out alive. The chaos lasted
about eighteen minutes, and the fire was under controlled by
about a half hour after its arted, but one hundred
and forty six workers died, largely because workplace safety was
so neglected at the factory. The danger of conditions and

(01:10):
factories like Triangle Shirtwaist was no secret and plenty of
people died every day in the workplace back in those days.
As devastating as the fire was, it did lead to
labor reforms. In the early nineteen hundreds in New York,
factories were known for the low wages they paid their workers,
the long hours employees were on the clock, and how

(01:33):
unhygienic and dangerous working conditions could be, And it was
common knowledge that fires posed a huge risk in factories.
The Triangle Waste Company factory was no exception. The factory
at twenty three to twenty nine Washington Place in the
Ash Building was owned by Max Blanc and Isaac Harris.
Another factory the pair owned, the Diamond Waste Company, had

(01:56):
burned twice before and the Triangle Shirt Waste Factory had
burned before two. Working conditions in the Triangle Factory were miserable. Also,
mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrants and young women worked
at the factory making shirtwaists or button down blouses that
were modeled on menswear shirts. The workers were packed in

(02:17):
rows at sewing machines. They worked fifty two hours a
week and made from seven to twelve dollars for that
week's worth of work, which is about one six to
nineteen dollars per week in today's money. They got basically
no breaks. Bins full of clothing material made perfect kindling
for fire, and if a fire did happen, exit options

(02:40):
were dangerously limited. Workers had to leave at the Green
Street exit so they could be searched for any stolen
items one by one. The fire escape was narrow and unstable.
The fire coat was pretty much ignored here. In nineteen
o nine, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a

(03:01):
strike protesting the poor pay in long hours and factories.
When workers at shirt waste companies walked out, the Women's
Trade Union League advocated for them. Blonc and Harris, though
weren't into the idea of paying workers more and giving
them better hours. The garment industry had made some gains

(03:21):
during this time, like getting a grievment system, but workers
rights and conditions and factories were still subpar so. In
the afternoon of Saturday, March eleven, a fire broke out
on the top floors of the ash building where the
Triangle factory was located. It's not exactly clear how the
fire started, but it was determined to have been sparked

(03:43):
by a cigarette or a cigar that was thrown in
the scrapin where the fire originated. The fire safety measures
that were willfully ignored in the factory could have saved
a lot of people from being caught in the blaze,
but the ninth floor door to the Washington Place stairs
was locked, possibly on purpose by the owners to prevent theft.

(04:04):
Some workers escaped on the elevators, and some slid down
the elevator cables to exit, while some sadly fell down
the elevator shaft as they tried to get out. After
many people had fell off the fire escape, which stopped
before the ground anyway, the whole stairway fill, killing the
people on it. Some people jumped from windows to escape

(04:26):
the fire after they found no other way to exit
the burning building. The safety net firefighters set up below
the windows broke, and the firefighters ladders were too short
to rescue people as they stopped at the seventh floor
and the fire was on the eighth. In a twisted
illustration of the class division and suppressed rights of industrial workers,

(04:48):
Harris Blank, blanks daughters and all the other workers on
the tenth floor, which was the executive floor, made it
out alive by taking the elevator or taking the stairs
to the roof. The whole horrible ordeal lasted for about
eighteen minutes. One forty six of the approximately five hundred
workers died. Martha Bisley brew Air wrote in the paper

(05:12):
Life and labor that may Harrison Blanch the Triangle Company
have offered to pay one week's wages to the families
of the dead girls as though it were summer, and
they are giving them a vacation. The Triangle Waste Company
had moved to a new location and quote good working
order after the fire, though it was found that the

(05:32):
new location wasn't fireproof and a fire escape exit was
already blocked. In the wake of the disaster, people mourned
the loss of the workers, protested the unsafe conditions and factories,
and demanded Harris and Blanc go to trial. Progressive organizations
helped give out pensions and helped place injured workers in

(05:53):
jobs and homes. Blanc and Harris were charged with manslaughter
in the second degree under section eighty of the Labor Code,
which said that doors should not be locked during working hours.
They went to trial in December, but the owners were
acquitted as the jury doubted that the owners knew the
doors were locked, even though a bunch of people testified

(06:15):
that they couldn't open the doors to the Washington Place exit.
Twenty three civil suits were brought against Blanc and Harris,
but in the end they only paid seventy five dollars
for each person who died after the fire, the Factory
Investigating Commission was established. Workplace safety mandates like sprinklers and

(06:36):
high rises and outward swinging exit doors spread across New
York into the rest of the US. In the years
to follow, politicians began incorporating labor reform into their platforms
and the emergence of more labor unions, and the New
Deal was on the horizon. I'm Eve Steff Coote and
hopefully you know a little more about history today than

(06:58):
you did yesterday. If you'd like to learn more about
the fire, you can listen to the episode of Stuff
You Missed in History class called Fire at the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory. If there's something that I missed in an episode,
you can share it on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook at
t d i h C podcast. Thanks for joining me

(07:21):
on this trip through history. See you here, same place tomorrow.
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