Today is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Not only was the fire a horrific and preventable event, unnecessarily taking the lives of 146 women, but its story plays an important role in the history of feminism, worker’s rights, and women’s rights.
The shirtwaist was a woman’s button-down blouse, modeled on the shape of a man’s tailored shirt with a turn-over collar and buttons down the front. The pattern is commonplace today (and also very common in many vintage garments), but at the beginning of the 20th century it presented the opportunity for a small revolution in the lives of women, and every modern woman had one.
Before the shirtwaist, women’s shirts were only one of multiple articles of clothing that impeded women. Full skirts, heeled boots, corsets, and dresses and shirts that fastened with dozens of tiny buttons (often up the back) not only hampered women’s movement, but their ability to even dress themselves. Shirtwaists, worn tucked into a skirt and topped with a jacket, were easy to put on (no assistance required), easy to wear, and easier to replace than an entire dress. Shirtwaists could also be purchased ready-made, freeing up time that would otherwise be spent sewing.
Shirtwaists also looked masculine. The style echoed the appearance of a man’s button-down shirt, and as more women entered the workforce, being able to wear a “modified men’s suit” helped women project a sense of skill and competence.
However, while the shirtwaist was an indication of increased freedom and autonomy for some women it was a symbol of oppression for others.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
Developed during the height of the industrial revolution, shirtwaists were produced in factories with sweatshop conditions: no safety regulations, no labor protection, and no course of action for change. Mainly staffed by women and children who worked 14 hour days and had to pay for the supplies they used, these factories had poor ventilation, bad lighting, and exits that were often locked so that workers could not leave their stations.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Worker
In 1909, female garment workers went on strike against several manufactures, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, to demand better working conditions.
- Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers preparing to strike
It’s estimated that over 30,000 workers, mainly women, marched for their rights, even as they were attacked by hired thugs, prostitutes and policemen. By today’s standards, what the workers were asking for was nothing: a 52-hour work week, four paid holidays/year, the ability to unionize, not having to pay for their tools and materials, wage negotiations, and fire safety regulations. Many companies agreed to settle with the strikers; Triangle Shirtwaist did not.
On March 25, 1911, one dropped match caused the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to catch on fire.
The workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrants, tried to escape, but doors were either locked or opened into the room against the panicked crowd. Women began descending the fire escapes but were killed as the structure collapsed beneath them. Firemen arrived, but their ladders were too short to reach the source of the fire and they stood with pedestrians, watching as women jumped out of windows and listening to the screams of those trapped inside.
Only thirty minutes after the fire began, 146 people were dead – some so badly burned that they were unidentifiable.
The 10th Floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the fire
The temporary morgue set up so that family members could identify the victims of the fire
But good did come out of the tragedy. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the principle catalyst for factory reform in the United States, reform that was spearheaded and championed by women and created systems in which women were safer.
The outrage of factory reformists and labor unions, coupled with the support of the public, led New York to enact legislation to protect the welfare of all factory workers. The state system soon became the model for national legislation.
A shirtwaist pattern, embroidered with the names of the 146 victims of the fire
PBS’s American Experience produced a beautiful documentary on the fire and its workers. Watch it here.
Thoughts on feminism weave themselves throughout this story. An article of clothing that represented freedom for some women was a shackle for others, and turned into a death sentence for 146 too many. But out of the tragedy came reform that would help all women. Some history to think about the next time you wear a button-down shirt.
Full disclosure: The idea for this post was inspired by a fantastic post a colleague wrote on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire from a museum point of view. I tip my hat to her.