The 1911 New York fire that changed history

On the eighth floor of a women’s garment factory steps from Washington Square Park, a fire broke out in a wood bin filled with fabric scraps. It was about 4 pm on a Saturday, and the workday should have been ending.

Instead, the blaze grew, reaching the ninth and tenth floors of the factory. When workers tried to escape, they encountered locked doors. One fire escape collapsed to the ground under the weight of desperate employees.

Many of those trapped in the upper floors jumped to the sidewalk in front of horrified onlookers, others burned in the flames because firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows. A total of 146 workers were killed in the fire of March 25, 1911—mostly young female immigrants.

As tragic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was, the terrible toll had a profound effect in New York City—leading to stricter workplace safety laws and harsher legislation protecting workers. These new mandates had strong support from an outraged public, whose horror was reflected in piercing illustrations that appeared in newspapers for weeks.

This one above is by John Sloan, published in The Call. The illustrator of the second image is unknown, but that sure looks like the Asch Building, where the Triangle fire occurred.

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16 Responses to “The 1911 New York fire that changed history”

  1. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    That was bad, bad, bad and its effects were felt for years.

  2. ironrailsironweights Says:

    One of the very few examples of a building that suffered a catastrophic fire or other disaster but remsined standing and is still around. The only other one I can think of is the MGM Grand.


  3. kenny Says:


  4. velovixen Says:

    Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but to think that if such a thing happened today, the victims would be blamed–or, at least, the folks who owned the business and locked the doors would be excused.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Well, the owners of the factory went on trial but were found innocent. They settled a civil suit with many of the families that paid out $75 per deceased worker, amazingly.

  5. jonathan starr Says:

    NYT today has a story about the Am Irish Historical Society, and it mentions the owner who built the mansion at 991 Fifth Avenue in 1901.
    Soon after, it was bought by a steel magnate who eloped with an actress; when their marriage went kaput, he lived alone in the mansion till his death in 1934.
    Who was the original builder, and who was the eventual owner?
    Extra points: who was the actress??

  6. Kevin Golden Says:

    Note that this was only 7 years after the General Slocum ship fire that also killed more than 1000 mostly immigrant passengers. And, this was only 11 years after the 5th Ave St Patricks Day hotel fire Ephemeral detailed earlier this week . Public ‘outrage’ doesnt necessarily lead to laws being enacted in a timely manner, unfortunately.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, agree. Fire safety took a long time to come around. Though no one knows for sure, I believe that all three of these fires were thought to be caused by a match lit for a cigarette. The reduction in smoking over the past 50 or so years probably saved many people who would have died in smoking-related fires.

      • C Baker Says:

        Maybe. On the other hand, modern homes are significantly more flammable than homes in the past, mostly due to the increased use of synthetics in clothing and home furnishings. There may be fewer fires, but once they start, they don’t go out easy.

  7. C Baker Says:

    Years ago I read an article about Rose Freedman, one of the very few survivors of the fire, and the last one to die. Maybe it was her obit I’d read.

    She survived by sheer luck – she was at the back of the crowd, and had enough time to reflect that the owners weren’t in the stampede with the workers, so she went up the stairs to the roof, like the bosses had done, and got out that way.

  8. Kiwiwriter Says:

    According to family myth, my Great-Aunt Gus Denker was working in the factory, and escaped it by climbing on a ladder thrown across the courtyard by NYU students.

    According to family fact, the man she married, my Great-Uncle Joe Samberg, was playing with his pals in Washington Square Park, when they saw the horse-drawn fire engines come thundering up. Joe and his buddies jumped on their bicycles to watch the action. They saw plenty.

    As hoses and pumpers struggled to put water on a blaze just out of reach, factory workers, unable to use the stairs or elevators, huddled out on the ledges of the factory’s floors (eighth, ninth, and 10th), with nowhere to go. So rather than be burned to death, they jumped, smashing into the glass windows on the sidewalk that provided light in the Asch Building’s basement, their bodies getting crushed by a combination of glass, concrete, and velocity

    One couple took each other in their arms and jumped together. Both hit the sidewalk and were killed instantly.

    Most of the workers were young immigrant women (and some men), and had little power. Strikes and labor organizing had failed so far.

    Real change in the sweatshops would have to come from an unlikely source: “Silent Charlie” Murphy, the Tammany leader, who normally played both sides of labor-management disputes. He needed labor votes for his candidates and management money for his election campaigns. He could no longer stand in the middle. To his credit, he was also morally outraged by the horror and the weaknesses given by the investigation. He used his power to enact new safety laws in the garment and other industries, which prevented further debacles, but did not end sweatshops — it just made them illegal.

    Today the Asch Building is still there, and the top three stories that were the factory are the chemistry laboratory and lecture halls. When I attended NYU, I used the elevator and staircase in that building all the time, because they were so small that nobody else used them. It was a good way to get around. I did a term paper on the fire for “Social History of New York” and broke out a tape measure to check the staircase’s width. It was a depressing number.

    This year will be the 110th anniversary of the fire.

  9. Donald Visconti Says:

    The State Insurance Fund was formed, soon after this tragedy! I worked there as a Field Rep.. I went to customers’ locations, and checked for hazardous conditions.

  10. Ginger Says:

    The only reason I learned about this incident is due to the arsonist of the Happy Land Social Club fire in the Bronx passing away a few years ago. Both incidents occurred on the same day 79 years apart. The 30th anniversary of the latter was last year but there was no memorial due to the pandemic.

    • Kiwiwriter Says:

      The Happy Land disaster had similar issues, too: no escape, no sprinkler system, too much flammable material.

      The book “Heat,” about the NYFD arson squad, by Peter A. Michaels, includes the Happy Land investigation. The Fire Marshals who handled the case said there was no mystery about it either from the forensic standpoint or finding the suspect.

      The fire was done as an episode of “Law and Order.”

  11. An Anniversary Born In Flames – Stories Served Around the Table Says:

    […] March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire killed 146 garment workers. Most were young first generation or recently immigrated Jewish and […]

  12. A teenage immigrant who became a “sweatshop girl” tells her life story | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] instincts had to kick in. “So I went to work in Allen Street (Manhattan) in what they call a sweatshop, making skirts by machine. I was new at the work and the foreman scolded me a great deal.” […]

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