Garment workers strike after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in...

Garment workers strike after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which claimed 146 lives. Credit: NARA

In 1911, the Triangle Waist Company was an enterprise at 23-29 Washington Place, Manhattan, engaged in the manufacture of "shirtwaists" - a blouse tailored with a bodice style that had been much in style but was rapidly moving out of style. The owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had grown wealthy on shirtwaists, although labor turmoil and shifting fashions threatened their empire.

Conditions on the ninth floor were poor: The workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrant women, toiled 14-hour days for as little as $2 a day. They were also searched before leaving the building - Blanck and Harris didn't want anyone stealing fabric, and they locked another exit door to Washington Place.

On Saturday, March 25, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch Building (now NYU's Brown Building of Science). The owners scrambled to safety across the rooftop. No one warned 200 workers nearing the end of their shift on the ninth floor.

MY SAY Most of us know that the Triangle shirtwaist factory was a terrible tragedy - 146 dead, mostly women, half of them teenagers - that transformed labor history; 30 new laws were enacted within two years that addressed child labor, workplace conditions and minimum wages. But it's one thing to vaguely know the impact of a distant tragedy, another to see it. Thanks to a rich archival record, you can tonight.

BOTTOM LINE "American Experience" offers a brisk, concise history of the events leading up to the tragedy - much less so the aftermath - but the power lies in those somber pictures of so long ago.


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