Place

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (Brown Building)

Historic photograph of crowds standing outside a city building.
Crowds stand outside the Asch Building, now the Brown Building, the site of the Triangle Fire (1911)

Courtesy Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.09113

Quick Facts

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The Brown Building, formerly known as the Asch Building, was the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911. One hundred and forty-six garment workers died in the blaze. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history. In its aftermath, outraged advocates demanded stronger workplace safety protections and better working conditions for those who toiled in the city’s sweatshops.

Background

The Triangle Waist Company factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building. About five hundred people worked there. Most of them were young immigrant women and girls with roots in Southern and Eastern Europe. Many were Jewish. They worked long hours sewing women’s blouses, or “shirtwaists.”

The New York City garment industry was large, but these workers’ wages were low—between $3.50 and $6.50 per hour in 2020 currency. Low wages and crowded conditions had prompted many garment workers to organize unions in the years before the fire. Triangle Factory employees were among the tens of thousands who walked off the job in 1909. They stayed out for three months. The massive strike was known as the “Uprising of the 20,000.” Though they won higher wages and some improvements in working conditions, the painful events of just a year later showed just how vulnerable many of them remained.

The Fire

On the afternoon of March 25, a fire started on the eighth floor of the Asch Building when sparks from a discarded match or cigarette ignited a scrap bin filled with fabric cuttings. In a small space draped with flammable cloth, the fire spread explosively. Within five minutes, the eighth floor was consumed. Workers managed to warn employees on the tenth floor. But they had no way to reach the ninth—and no fire alarm system they could trigger. The emergency fire hose would not turn on.

As the blaze became an inferno, terrified workers from the eighth floor began escaping down the stairwell. Two elevator operators made valiant, repeated trips to the factory floors, saving at least 150 people. People on the tenth floor made it to the roof, where they were rescued by a class of NYU law students in the building next door who stretched ladders across to let them climb to safety. But their colleagues on the ninth floor did not know the fire had started until it arrived. By then there were few options left.

On the street below, New Yorkers enjoying the spring weather realized something was wrong when puffs of smoke started to emerge from the building’s upper floors. Bystanders rang the alarm bells in the street-level fire boxes. As fire engines rushed toward the building, human figures appeared in the windows. Workers on the ninth floor had tried to use one of the staircases—only to find that the door was locked, a method that managers used to keep employees from taking unauthorized breaks. A few people managed to make it to the roof or the elevator and safety.

But many others, with no other way to escape the flames, jumped or fell from the windows to the street, a hundred feet below. The firefighters’ life nets proved useless. Horrified onlookers could do nothing but watch. “I learned a new sound that day,” wrote journalist William Gunn Shepard, “a sound more horrible than description can picture—the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.” Soon the rickety fire escape twisted and collapsed, hurling more people to their deaths. Others died from their burns or from inhaling the heavy smoke.

Aftermath and Legacy

The dead and their families suffered the most from the disaster. Of the one hundred and forty-six victims, six remained unidentified until researcher Michael Hirsch uncovered their names in 2011. A group memorial to them, erected in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn and Queens, now bears their names.[1]

The fire forced a reckoning over building codes and workplace safety in New York and elsewhere. Although innovations like fire stairs and sprinklers were available, the Asch Building did not have them. Nor did most other factories. A fire drill had never been conducted there. The city did not require any of these measures, and in fact turned a blind eye to features of the Asch building that did defy codes—like a rickety fire escape that did not actually reach the ground.

In the wake of the fire, New York City and State created commissions to investigate factory conditions and public safety. With the support of both Progressive reformers like Robert F. Wagner and Tammany Hall politicians like Al Smith, they passed thirty-eight new laws. Changes included requiring buildings to improve fire safety; limiting working hours for women and children; and mandating better eating and bathroom facilities for workers.

The labor movement also grew stronger in the wake of the disaster. Garment workers were organized in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which demanded justice for the fire’s victims. At a memorial meeting a week after the disaster, union leader Rose Schneiderman issued an indictment of a public that she felt had turned a blind eye to these dangerous conditions:

“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. ... Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

The Triangle fire was a turning point in the country’s history and in the lives of many individual people. Of course, the lives of the survivors and of the victims’ families and friends were the most transformed. But the shocks reverberated far beyond Greenwich Village. Consumer advocate Frances Perkins, for example, witnessed the fire and heard Rose Schneiderman’s fiery speech at the memorial meeting the next week. She channeled her grief and anger into leadership of one of the committees that investigated the fire. Years later, she brought her experience and commitment to using government power to protect workers to her position as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor—the first woman cabinet member in US history. Perkins and the other architects of the New Deal believed in the government’s power and responsibility to protect ordinary people and solve social problems. Events like the Triangle fire shaped that worldview.

The Building

The Brown Building occupies 23-29 Washington Place in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was completed in 1901 and is an example of the neo-Renaissance architectural style. It features a stone base and brick upper walls with terra-cotta trim. Five limestone pilasters decorate the front façade and are topped with terra-cotta capitals. Originally the building housed retail shops on the ground level and factory space on levels 2-10. After the 1911 fire, the building was refurbished and sold to Frederick Brown, who rented it to nearby New York University. In 1929 Brown donated it to NYU and it was renamed in his honor.

The Brown Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark on July 17, 1991. On March 25, 2003, it was named a New York City Landmark. As of 2020, it hosts classrooms and science labs. Memorial plaques commemorate the victims. Each March on the fire’s anniversary, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition organizes a memorial gathering. As of 2020, the Coalition is in the process of developing a permanent memorial to the fire’s victims.

Notes

[1] The Cemetery of the Evergreens was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 15, 2007.

Bibliography

Berger, Joseph. “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire is Complete.” New York Times, Feb. 20, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/21/nyregion/21triangle.html
Miller, Page Putnam. "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory," National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form (Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1991). https://npgallery.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NHLS/Text/91002050.pdf. 
Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
"Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire," Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell University, https://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu. 
Schneiderman, Rose. “We Have Found You Wanting.” Speech at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY, April 2, 1911. http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/testimonials/ootss_RoseSchneiderman.html
Von Drehle, David. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.