History the Triangle Fire

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Eleonore ConstantFall 2011
History 162
Modern America
Dr. Bittel

PAPER OPTION #1
The Triangle Fire

The terrible fire that revealed a harsh reality to the world

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to find a building that does not have exit signs or fire extinguishers in America. Whether in a university or at the work place, exit signs and fire safety instructions can easily be found by anybody. Fire drills are regularly practiced to ensure the least amount of casualty will occur if something goes wrong. However, a hundred years ago safety issues were barely taken into considerations and safety regulations were most of the time inexistent, as illustrates the terrible fire that happened a hundred years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. This tragic event was not an unfortunate accident but the inevitable outcome of industrialism and labor relations in the Gilded Age. Although it was a match or cigarette that sparked the fire that killed 146 workers, this terrible tragedy was the result of the terrible factory conditions in which women workers where exploited by despotic employees, and women’s protests are but a proof of those two facts.

The terrible conditions in factories during the Gilded Age are probably the main reason why the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory happened. Although New York was the largest factory town in America in 1911, there was no factory district to be found. Manufactories were disguised behind facades of stone and marble that looked like great hotels or office buildings. Those modern loft buildings had not been constructed to be factories and came to be used as such almost by accident. In the early 20th century, garment makers were looking for factories and they found a perfect place in those lofts. Insuring those buildings was cheap because the lofts were said to be fireproof. New York factory laws stated that every factory worker had to have 250 cubic feet of air and as the loft ceilings were ten or eleven feet high it allowed employees to “pack” workers and machines as closely as the chairs could be put and still be within the law. Unfortunately, “The most efficient of fire departments could only guarantee to fight fire successfully to a height of eighty-five feet – about that of the seventh story – they height to which water-towers can reach and throw their streams in levelly.” (Argersinger, 41). Thus although the buildings were said to be fireproof, in case of a fire there was no way of reaching the highest stories with the fire hoses. “Regarding fire-escapes themselves the New York building code was non-committal.” (Argersinger, 41). This explains why so many workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were unable to escape from the building and had to either jump from the windows or be burned to death. In addition to the lack of fire escapes, passageways to exits were made purposely narrow so that the watchman outside it could look into the workers’ open handbags as they passed to ensure no one was stealing anything. “Whatever the number, they had no chance of escape” (Argersinger, 73), as only a few remembered the fire escape that was inadequate anyways as it only consisted of “a lone ladder running down to a rear narrow court, which was smoke filled as the fire raged one narrow door giving access to the ladder.” (Argersinger, 73). Given those conditions, the few workers that could have remembered about the fire escape would probably still have died in the incident. Another fact to be taken into consideration is that the rooms where workers made the shirtwaists were crammed with tissue paper, lace, and muslin goods, all extremely inflammable materials. In addition, the tables were made of wood, and the pressing was done with gas irons, which means that the flame inside the open iron was only an inch away from the goods to be pressed. In his description of the fire, William Shepherd writes “The flames caught all the flimsy lace stuff and linens that go into...
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