Many of us learned about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire from our teachers in school. But the fire alone wasn't what drew the attention of the nation and changed America’s labor history forever.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster occurred on March 25, 1911, only 1 mile north of Wall Street. Owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the company manufactured shirtwaists—or women's button-down blouses—in the upper floors of the Asch Building near Washington Square. Most of the company’s employees were young, immigrant women; conditions in the cramped space were not ideal.
When the Shirtwaist fire broke out on the 8th floor, many workers found exiting almost impossible. The doors were locked by managers to prevent theft and some doors opened the wrong way. Only a few buckets of water were on hand to douse the flames. Outside, firefighters' ladders were too short to reach the top floors. 146 people, mostly women, died of burns, asphyxiation, or blunt impact from jumping from the building to the sidewalk.
The public outcry over this preventable tragedy brought a sense of urgency to the labor movement and to other groups working to improve women's and immigrants' rights in the workplace. Not just limited to New York City, the publicity surrounding the fire pushed workplace safety issues onto the national stage.
The National Safety Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to safety issues, was formed in 1913. Also in that year, President Wilson signed Public Law 426-62 which created the Department of Labor.
Out of the fire’s ashes came the New Deal: Social Security, a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage rule and a ban on child labor.
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