Friday, March 25, 2011

New York State Archives Triangle Shirtwaist Fire exhibit

Floor plan showing the layout of the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. From Factory Investigating Commission, Press Clippings Concerning Commission Activities, 1911, 1913-1914. A3023-77, Box 1, Folder 19140401, 4, New York State Archives, Albany, N.Y. Image courtesy of the New York State Archives. A zoomable version of this image is available here, and a Cornell University School of Industrial Relations three-dimensional model of the floor plan is available here.

One hundred years ago today, fire quickly spread through the cramped, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building (now the Brown Building of Science) on New York City's Washington Square. Most of the employees on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape, but those on the ninth floor learned of the fire only when flames began spreading around them. A locked exit, a woefully inadequate fire escape, and elevator cars stopped by heat and the weight of the bodies of desperate women and men who jumped down the shaft hampered their escape. Dozens were overcome by smoke and flames, and dozens more -- many of them on fire -- leaped to their deaths before the fire could claim them. Within roughly half an hour, 146 workers, most of them young women or teenage girls who had immigrated from Italy or Eastern Europe, died. Six of those who perished remained unknown until earlier this year, when a dogged researcher who spent years combing through archival and library collections and old newspapers finally established who they were.

In the wake of the fire, New York State took dramatic action. It established a Factory Investigating Commission that began by examining fire safety issues in manufacturing facilities throughout the state and ultimately probed every aspect of the state's industrial economy. It then passed an ambitious series of laws concerning fire safety, working hours, and worker safety. Many other states and, ultimately, the federal government enacted legislation modeled upon New York's post-Triangle laws; Frances Perkins, who headed the Factory Investigating Committee's fire safety investigation and later served U.S. Secretary of Labor, asserted at one point that, in some respects, the New Deal began on 25 March 1911.

Several of my New York State Archives colleagues have created a new Web exhibit that brings together images of Triangle workers held by the Library of Congress and our own images of Factory Investigating Committee records highlighting the unsafe conditions, long working hours, and low rates of pay that investigators found in facilities located throughout the state. Please take a moment to check it out -- and to remember that sprinkler systems, fire alarms, accessible exits, and many other things that we take for granted were once rarities in the United States and are still rarities in many parts of the world.

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