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A Review of the Essay of “Rose Schneiderman and the Triangle Fire” by Bonnie Mitelman
Reported by Leslie Regina Goodson
The American History Illustrated, published in July of 1981, featured an essay by Bonnie Mitelman. The essay expounds on the tragedy of a horrific fire at the Triangle Waist Company on March 25, 1911 and the impetus it had on a union activist, Rose Schneiderman. Ms. Mitelman emphasizes the altering change such a tragedy can have on an individual, a small community, a society, and nation.
The Triangle Waist Company was one of the largest shirtwaist manufacturers at the time of the fire. Located in the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building in Greenwich Village, it usually employed 900 workers. On the day of the fire, only between 500 to 600 workers were there. When the fire was out, 146 were dead. Each death was avoidable.
Minutes of a Women’s Trade Union League meeting held a day after the Triangle Waist Company fire refers to the public indifference to the deplorable working conditions and the pleas for safety reform. One irony of the fire was that a massive strike of garment workers had taken place during the winter of 1909-1910. The reason for the strike was grievous working conditions faced by garment workers. The thousands of women and young girls striking were asking for safety and sanitary reforms in the industry’s workplaces. The result of the strike had been a shorter workweek equaling 52 hours, minimal increases wages, and some safety reforms. However, the instrument that would have given the workers the power to enforce the promised changes was denied them when the strike did not result in the recognition of their union. Prior to the Triangle Waist Company fire the public refused to see a responsibility for the exploitation of immigrant labor and saw striking workers anarchists. This began to change after the fire. The 146 dead made the establishment begin to see striking workers as human beings seeking their rights.
The Triangle Waist Company fire was not the first waistmaker’s fire. Three months before the Triangle Waist Company fire, 25 working women were killed during a destructive fire in Newark, New Jersey. Garment worker reform activist, Theresa SerberMalkiel, went before the Women’s Trade Union League to encourage action to prevent another tragedy such as this. She blamed the greed and negligence of owners and public authorities for the fire. An investigation was begun in cooperation with other trade unions supportive of garment workers.
Max Blank had appealed to the Women Trade Union League during the strike, pleading to have the young girls return to work. He explained that he had a business reputation to uphold and promised the League that he would make all necessary improvements immediately. Because he was such a large manufacturer and was trusted by the League, the girls returned to work. True to Mrs. Malkiel declaration of owners’ greed and negligence, none of the improvements were made.
The Triangle Waist Company had obvious fire violations, but up until the fire there was no one who could or would do anything to enforce them. The doors leading to the outside opened inwardly instead of out and remained locked during business hours. Law required three staircases, but there were only two for the workers at the Triangle Waist Company. Though the Asch Building was reported to be fireproof and showed very little signs of the devastating fire that took place, it had wooden window frames, floors, and trim that fueled the fire.
Amazingly, the Triangle Waist Company was not the only dangerous shirtwaist factory or even the most dangerous shirtwaist manufacturer workplace. Files kept by the Women’s Trade Union League report complaints made by workers describing factories with “locked doors, no fire escapes, and barred windows.” A report from the New York Times told of 14 factories without fire escapes. The article also reported that 99% of the factories investigated in New York had serious fire hazards.
The vast majority of the employees were young girls that were Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Many speaking limited English, only adding to their panic once the fire broke out. The effect of the fire and lost of so many young Jewish women created a “determination and dedication” to reform. And, had changed the socialist rhetoric to a life and death struggle for the community.
The details of the tragedy define what the 1909-1910 strikers meant by “safety and sanitary reform.” Around quitting time, approximately 4:45 p.m., on March 25, 1911 the fire reportedly broke out. Pay envelopes had been handed out to the workers and the workers had begun to leave their work stations. The fire began small, but attempts to put it out failed. The fire jumped from debris pile to debris pile, eating up the fabric used in making the shirtwaists. The workers began to rush to the stairways and elevators. Some made it down the eight flights of stairs, though at least one door leading to the staircase was locked. Some workers made it down the elevators. Some even successfully jumped down elevator shafts once the elevators stopped working. The workers were hindered by the exits that were either locked or blocked and windows that were rusted shut. Only one door was open at the time the workers were trying to escape. Many workers were left trapped behind the mob of escaping co-workers or between the long work tables.
When the fire department reached the Asch Building, the ladder truck was of no use, having a ladder that only reached to the seventh floor. Once the firemen had successfully connected their hoses, the entire eighth floor was aflame. The firemen enlisted spectators to assist in holding the safety nets so that the workers that were escaping to the ledge of the building could jump to safety. However, the jump was from too far up and victim after victim plunged to their .............
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