The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
Women have always worked but during the Industrial Revolution, they flocked to the cities in droves to work in factories. Textile factories and garment works employed the largest numbers of women in big cities. Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 ushered in the Victorian Era. New manufacturing processes spun out of the Industrial Revolution and created employment opportunities for lower-class women. Women found work in textile or clothing factories under harsh conditions, while some found employment in laundries, chicken and fish processing, tanneries, and shoe and glove factories. Often mothers brought their small children with them and they were put to work as well. Women and children worked for dreadfully low wages for long hours. Overseers had the right to dock pay, fire workers or use corporal punishment on the job. If any employee was brave enough to stick up for other workers, they, too, were punished.
Women’s work was always considered secondary, even though it was crucial to the survival of poor and emerging middle-class families. Records of working women are spotty, especially in the first half of the 1800s, as women often worked at home doing sewing or piecework for companies before factories became the main workplace. In census records, the occupations of women were often left blank. By 1840, 10% of women worked outside the home, by 1850, 15%. That ratio rose steadily throughout the 1800s, with a whopping 44% of single women working (21% of total women) in 1900.
The years of 1865-1920 were called “the era of the single woman.” By 1890, 75% of working women were single. This was due to a variety of reasons, beginning with the horrific death and maiming of men during the Civil War which reduced the population of marriageable men. Education and employment opportunities for women also increased dramatically.
The earliest recorded strike in U.S. history occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marked the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers.
The first recorded strike by female workers was in the 1830s in Lowell, Massachusetts. The diary of a 13-year-old girl named Amelia recounted girls working 13 hours a day in a living hell: "“worse than the poor peasant of Ireland or the Russian serf who labors from sun to sun." Lucy Larcom, who started as a doffer of bobbins at age 12, wrote she "hated the confinement, noise, and choking lint-filled air.”
In 1834, when their bosses decided to cut their wages, the mill girls organized and fought back. The mill girls went on strike—to protest. They marched to several mills to encourage others to join them, gathered at an outdoor rally and signed a petition refusing to work until their wages were restored. But the mill bosses were extremely powerful and broke the strike. A second strike in 1836—also sparked by wage cuts—was better organized and made a bigger dent in the mills' operation. But in the end, the results were the same.
But, in the 1840s, they organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours and asked Massachusetts state legislature to cap the workday in the mills at 10 hours. They also campaigned against their strongest opponent, a state representative, and handily defeated him. But both strikes were crushed. In 1847, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a 10-hour workday law—even though it wasn't enforceable.
It was a bitter, hollow victory but the long struggle for worker rights had gained a foothold. "They have at last learnt the lesson which bitter experience teaches,” a Lowell mill worker wrote. “Do not trust [those who claim to be] our 'natural protectors' but look to those strong and resolute of our own sex."
Another strike in the 1880s in Atlanta, Georgia, was held by black women, who less than two decades before, had been slaves. Nearly all the women were scattered throughout the city, working for private families. A third of the washerwomen raised their families alone on their salaries. It was physically exhausting work and very hot in summer, carrying gallons of water from wells, boiling water, washing clothes on wash boards, and ironing with heavy irons heated on wood stoves. Washerwomen made around $4 a month ($90 in today’s dollars).
In July 1881, 20 laundresses met to form a trade organization called The Washing Society. They sought higher pay and autonomy over their work and established a uniform rate at $1 per dozen pounds of wash. With the support of the city’s black ministers, they held a mass meeting and called a strike to achieve higher pay at the uniform rate. The Washing Society urged laundresses across the city to honor the strike. They also involved white laundresses, a shocking sign of interracial solidarity for the time. In three weeks, the Washing Society grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers.
By August, white authorities were arresting strikers, fining them, beating them, and threatening their families. But, in the end, the strike raised wages and inspired other domestic workers who had been working for near-slave wages. Cooks, maids, nurses and hotel workers began demanding higher wages. Unlike past strikes, employers—afraid of the magnitude of the black labor unrest—couldn’t find replacement workers and began paying higher wages.
At the turn of the century, disasters in coal mining, steel mills and factories reached horrific levels. During the first two decades of the 1900s, dozens of coal mining and textile factory disasters became commonplace headlines across the nation. Ten of the worst coal mining accidents took place at his time killing more than 2,000 miners and injuring thousands more. Textile factory and glove factories were nearly as bad. Labor leaders, church leaders, and workers began to march and band together.
One such woman came to be known as “the miner’s angel” and “the most dangerous woman in America”: Her name was Mary Harris Jones, but known by all as Mother Jones. She championed the fight first against child labor, then miners’ better working conditions, and protections and better wages for factory workers. She famously said: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
One factory disaster in particular was a turning point in the labor movement: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The Triangle Waist Company was located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, New York City. The factory employed about 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls as young as 12 years old. They worked six days a week for about $7-$12 a week ($3.67-$6.29 hourly in today’s currency.)
A fire had started late Saturday afternoon on the 8th floor under a fabric cutters table. Because there was fabric and lint dust everywhere, the fire spread like a fireball through the 8th floor. A bookkeep was able to call up to the 10th floor to warn employees but there was no way to warn the 9th floor. There were no alarms and stairways were locked to prevent employee breaks and theft. There were two freight elevators and stairways to the Greene Street and Washington Place, but soon fire consumed both stairways and the rails of the elevators buckled from the heat.
Some victims ran out onto fire escapes but the iron soon twisted under the weight and heat and scores fell to their deaths. Others were able to pry open the elevator doors and tried to shimmy down the hot cables or jumped down the shafts to their deaths. When the firetrucks arrived, their ladders only reached to the 6th floor. Women and girls screamed out the windows and finally, stood on the windowsills as flames licked from the windows.
Louis Waldman, a New York assemblyman, wrote of the scene: “The eighth, ninth and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.... Several hundred workers were trapped.... Girl after girl appeared at the reddened windows, paused for a terrified moment, then leapt to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to her death.” Sixty-two people jumped to their deaths. One man and woman kissed each other in the window, then jumped together, holding each other’s hand as they fell to their deaths.
William Gunn Shepard, a reporter at the tragedy, wrote: "I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture – the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.”
The disaster resulted in meaningful reform in many ways. The Women’s Trade Union League and Garment Workers Union membership skyrocketed after the fire. And New York formed the first Committee of Public Safety and founded the American Society of Safety Professionals. Moreover, New York legislation between 1911 and 1913 passed 60 new laws for the 54-hour bill and other labor and safety reforms mandating better building access, fireproofing, alarm and sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, and better working conditions for workers.
In 2001, the last living survivor of the fire passed away. Rose Rosenfeld Freedman died at age 107 and had been 17 years old at the time of the fire. She had survived when she saw company executives escaping and followed them to the roof where they were rescued. As a result of her brush with death, she was a lifelong member of a union.
PHOTOS: (1) The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, formed in 1834, was the first female labor union. It fought to reduce the workday to 10 hours daily. (2) In July 1881, 20 black laundresses met to form a trade organization called The Washing Society and sought higher pay. In three weeks, they grew from 20 to 3,000 strikers and successfully won their demands, despite death threats and violent arrests. (3) Mary Harris Jones, “Mother Jones,” was called “the miners’ angel” for fighting for miners’ better working conditions. (4 & 5) At the turn of the century, women’s labor unions took hold. The National Women Trade Union League was formed in 1903. Their motto: “The eight-hour day, a living wage, to guard the home.” (6) Mrs. Fannie Sellins, a trade union organizer, was shot to death by coal mine guards during a protest for safer working conditions and a livable wage at the Allegheny Coal Company in West Natrona, Pennsylvania on August 26, 1919. (7) Working mothers and children as young as five sometimes worked in textile mills. (9,10 & 11) The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York resulted in 146 deaths, mostly of young immigrant women and girls. The exits were all locked. Sixty-two workers jumped to their deaths from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors rather than be burned alive.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted September 4, 2019
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