What Has Changed Since 146 Workers Died In Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 Years Ago?

The government proposes new regulation to make an industry safer. The industry shouts back that the new measures are “cumbersome and costly,‟ tantamount to “a confiscation of property.” A newspaper opines, “Excited persons rarely accomplish anything…No new laws are needed.” Trade groups issue dire warnings about how the new laws will wipe out entire industries and sacrifice jobs. Are these the latest response to new Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines? Banking giants balking at financial reform? Nope, those were quotes from when fire protection guidelines were proposed after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers died. Friday marks the 100th anniversary of this tragedy.

The fire on the 9th floor of the factory sweatshop was so deadly because the foremen had locked the exit doors to keep the workers from taking breaks or stealing fabric. The doors that were unlocked opened inwards and became blocked by the crush of workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, trying to flee. The employees burned or jumped out the windows to their deaths. Firefighters later found charred skeletons still hunched over the machines.

“I wonder do the American people ever stop to realize that these social uplifters are one of the chief causes of the high cost of living. If they had their way, a can of tomatoes instead of costing 12 cents would cost at least 50 cents. This is the inevitable result of their endeavors,” said the director of the largest canning company in the state in response to both minimum wage law requirements and the efforts of the Factory Investigating Commission.

Contrary to his predictions, we still have cans of tomatoes and they’re quite affordable.

At the time, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York City said, “To my mind this is all wrong….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government, that the unfettered initiative of the individual is the force that makes a country great and that this initiative should never be bound…”

That’s true to an extent, but there are plenty of times when individual initiative should be bound. Like if that initiative kills other people.

On this centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, take a moment to remember those workers who deaths became the impetus to pass necessary safety regulations that prevented many more lives from being lost.

The New York Times City Room blog is running great posts and stories about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire all week. Check it out.