Posts Tagged ‘Triangle Waist Company’

A witness paints the tragic Triangle shirtwaist fire

March 7, 2016

Before he became a noted painter in the mid-1940s, Vincent Joseph Gatto was just another kid growing up in Little Italy.

He lived with his widowed stepmother and made ends meet as a plumber’s helper, a milk-can washer, steamfitter, and a featherweight club fighter.

Victorjosephgattotrianglefire

Looking for extra cash, he decided to show some of his paintings at the annual Greenwich Village Art Show, thinking his unschooled artistic efforts were better than what he saw on display along the sidewalks.

He quickly found fame and gallery representation for the works he painted from “outa my head,” he told Life in 1948.

VincentjosephgattoOne of those from-memory paintings focused on the Triangle shirtwaist fire. On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, Gatto (left), then 18, witnessed the terrible inferno on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Thirty-three years later, he recalled what he saw: the intense smoke and fire, helpless crowds, and the shrouded bodies of workers who jumped or fell to death being laid out on the sidewalk by firefighters.

The painting is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s Activist New York exhibit.

[Photo: Smithsonian Institute/Renwick Gallery]

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]

A teenager leads the great rent strike of 1907

June 21, 2014

Paulinenewman2By 1907, 16-year-old Pauline Newman (left) had been in New York City for six years.

Her widowed mother moved Pauline and her sisters from Lithuania to Madison Street on the Lower East Side in 1901, into a tenement with no bathroom or windows.

A few years later, Pauline began sewing shirtwaists in a factory—the Triangle Waist Company, actually, though this was three years before the deadly fire there.

Active in the growing labor movement and a future leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Pauline was frustrated with the working and living conditions around her.

Tenement life was rough. And then, in fall 1907, landlords called for a rent hike—without making the buildings any more liveable.

RentstrikeLOCJan1908So in December, she helped organize a rent strike, enlisting 400 other “working girls” who supported themselves on factory wages, to try to persuade other families to join with them and demand an 18-20 percent rent decrease.

“From 1905 to 1907, the average rent had increased 33 percent,” wrote Susan Campbell Bartoletti in Kids on Strike! “The cost of a two-room apartment had risen from fifteen dollars to twenty.”

On December 28, having convinced 10,000 households to withhold rent, the strike began.

Rent wasn’t paid, building code violations were tallied and reported, kids burned an effigy of a landlord (below photo) and The New York Times dubbed Pauline the “East Side Joan of Arc.”

RentstrikeleskidseffigyLandlords fought back by shutting off water and ordering evictions, wrote the Times.

Some landlords agreed to reduce rents somewhat, but evicted tenants got no sympathy from the NYPD chief, who reportedly said, “If you don’t like your rents, get out.”

In early January, both sides claimed victory. “The rent strike resulted in reduced rents for approximately two thousand families,” wrote Bartoletti.

Rentstrike1919nyt

“[The strikers and their supporters] lobbied for rent to be capped at 30 percent of a worker’s income. But rent control was difficult to win; it took over twenty years for the passage of rent control laws.”

Laws we’re still debating today.

[Second photo: LOC; fourth photo: from The New York Times archive, a 1919 rent strike in Harlem inspired by Pauline’s efforts]