Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History

by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 25, 2011 · Comments Off  

Triangle Shirtwaist FireNew York City: a tall building engulfed in flames, trapped workers on the upper floors leaping to their deaths. 9-11? No, 1911. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the most devastating disasters in American history. And it happened 100 years ago today.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop where hundreds of young women, most of them immigrants, slaved over sewing machines and work tables to make the popular blouses known as shirtwaists. When the fire started the women couldn’t get out, since the sweatshop owner had locked the doors. Fire hoses were too short to reach the highest floors where the fire raged. The trapped employees crowded onto a flimsy fire escape, which then collapsed under the weight. Desperately, with the wall of flames behind them, women started leaping to their deaths. A total of 146 garment workers died that day, most of them young women.

The Triangle fire was a watershed event. Labor laws, the women’s movement, public safety—all were transformed by the disaster.

Cornell University has an excellent resource site about the fire: Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire. It includes a photo archive (with graphic images, so be warned).

The Triangle fire had a galvanizing effect on Frances Perkins, who went on to become the first female Secretary of Labor (and the first female Cabinet member, period). Perkins was the architect of much of the New Deal, including Social Security.

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