March 25 marks the anniversary of the tragedy.
Shirtwaists – – – women’s blouses worn over plain long skirts in a “Gibson Girl” look – – – were extraordinarily popular, fashionable, and viewed as both democratic and a symbol of women’s increasing equality. The system for manufacturing the blouses, as with other items of clothing, included tenement sweatshops in which workers were “sweated” by contractors, as well as loft factories in which long rows of sewing machines could be powered by a single motor. There were eight such rows on the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building when the fire broke out on the floor below, igniting discarded material and quickly spreading through the three floors of the factory. A combination of safety hazards contributed to the high death toll: crowded shop floor, lack of fire drill training, fire trucks in New York City that could only reach the seventh floor, rickety fire escapes, inoperable elevators, and doors locked from the outside. One hundred forty-six people, mostly young women, died. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire became emblematic not only because of the number of deaths, but because it was a very public event, with a number of women jumping from the flames to the street below during the fire, bodies lined up on the sidewalk for identification afterwards, and newspaper reports of skeletons bent over sewing machines. It prompted a large commemoration, an unsuccessful prosecution of the shirtwaist “kings,” and a state investigative commission that spearheaded a number of legislative reforms aimed at safety including a fifty-four hour working week for children, minors, and women.
There are numerous events commemorating the tragedy and the continuing struggle for the rights of garment workers and other workers.