Posts Tagged ‘Triangle Shirtwaist Fire’

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

What became of the Triangle factory owners?

March 23, 2015

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.

Blanckandharris

From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.

Blanckandharrisfactoryafterfire

“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

Identifying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims

March 22, 2014

TriangleshirtwaistcorpsesThe fire started at 4:40 p.m. It was Saturday, March 25—a workday in 1911.

As flames quickly turned the top three floors of the Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place into a “roaring cornice of flames,” dozens of employees crowded the windows and fire escapes.

Half an hour later, when the fire had been extinguished, 146 Triangle Waist Company workers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. The grim task of identifying so many victims had begun.

Triangleshirtwaistcorpsesgreene

Over the next several hours, their corpses were laid out on the sidewalk, tagged, put in coffins, and loaded into wagons.

They were going to Charities Pier, off East 26th Street—nicknamed “Misery Lane” because it was the makeshift morgue where city officials routinely brought victims of lethal disasters.

Trianglefireoutsidemorgue

“When the wagons arrived, they were met by a team of homeless men dragooned from the Municipal Lodging House, who were assigned to open the boxes and arrange them in two long rows,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

Trianglefiremorgue

“At midnight, the doors opened. The first in a growing line of friends and family members began shuffling up one long row and down the other. Low voices, slow footsteps, the cry of gulls, and the lapping of water punctuated the heavy silence.

“A faint sulfuric glow fell from the lights hung high in the rafters. They did little  to illuminate the coffins, however, so policemen stood every few feet holding lanterns.

Triangleunidentifiedprocession

“When a loved one paused at a box and peered close, the nearest officer dangled his lantern helpfully.

Trianglememorialevergreens“The light swayed and flickered over the disfigured faces. Now and then a shock of recognition announced itself in a piercing cry or sudden sob splitting the ghastly quiet.”

The task of identifying the dead lasted four cold, rainy days. Pickpockets and the morbidly fascinated lined up along with family members.

Within a week, all but seven bodies had been ID’d.

In April, they were honored in a procession (above) and buried together at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire’s hero elevator men

March 14, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women trapped in the Greene Street building’s locked upper floors.

But the death toll on that spring-like afternoon, March 25, 1911, would have been higher if not for the factory’s two passenger elevator operators.

“Jospeh Zito (at right) and Gaspar Mortillalo, the elevator operators, were sitting in their cars waiting for the Triangle closing time when suddenly their bells began ringing wildly,” writes David Von Drehle in his book Triangle.

“In the aftermath, there would be much confusion about which floors the elevators visited and when, but they probably went first to the eighth floor, saved a load of grateful survivors, then headed up to the [tenth] floor.

“Zito estimates that he made two trips to the tenth floor—but when he got there the second time, everyone was gone. The rest of their work was on nine.

“Each elevator was built to hold about a dozen people. On their final runs, the cars carried at least twice that number.

“Between them, Zito and Mortillalo probably rescued 150 people or more—approximately half the total number of survivors.

“‘When I first opened the elevator door on the ninth floor all I could see was a crowd of girls and men with great flames and smoke right behind them,’ Zito said.

“‘When I came to the floor the [last] time, the girls were standing on the window sills with fire all around them.'”

A raging fire on a freezing cold night

December 11, 2008

Everyone knows about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the 1911 disaster that ushered in fire code reforms and workers compensation laws. But just a year later, another deadly blaze struck Manhattan: the Equitable Life Assurance (no, that’s not a typo) Building fire.

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At 5 a.m. on January 10, 1912, a small basement blaze in the building at Broadway and Pine Street quickly traveled through elevator shafts and exploded into an all-consuming inferno. Every fire company south of 59th Street arrived to help. Making it especially difficult was the 20-degree temperature and 60 mile an hour winds.

As The New York Times put it that morning: “Ice seemed to form in the very air. It clogged the apparatus, rooting the pieces to the frozen streets. It settled in cloaks over the men themselves, so that they had to be chopped and thawed out from time to time that they might go on with work.”

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Six men, including two firefighters, died before the fire was over. Half a billion bucks were safe in the building’s massive vaults. A new, 40-story Equitable building went up on the site and still stands today.