In the early 1900s New York City had the largest garment industry in the world. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory had about 600 workers and sewing machine operators who manufactured “shirtwaists” a name for popular lady’s fancy blouses. They labored sometimes as long as twelve hours a day for $6.00 per week.
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of a ten story building in the garment section of Lower Manhattan. This wasn’t unusual for an every growing city.
On March 25, 1911, Frances and Bettina Maiale (ages 21 and 19) went to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory like they had for five years since they had come from Sicilia to America. Most of the Triangle workers had immigrated from Eastern Europe and were Russians, Italians and Jews.
A fire broke out in the eighth floor offices trapping the workers on the ninth and tenth floors above it. The almost 600 workers tried to escape. Many took the one small working elevator. Some people climbed on the roof, others used the fire escape until it collapsed. Doors to the stairways were locked. Many of the victims never made it out and 62 jumped or fell to their death from the eighth floor. The onlookers stood helpless and horrified by the tragedy.
This was the tragic day when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire took the lives of 146 workers and shook much of the country into passing serious fire safety regulations.
It was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. 123 women and girls and 23 men perished in the disaster. Thousands of mourners attended the funerals. The fire marshal decided that the probable cause was a cigarette butt in a scrap bin. Even though smoking was prohibited sometimes the fabric cutters were known to sneak a smoke.
The factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were indicted on charges of 1st and 2nd degree man- slaughter. The jury acquitted them but they were later found liable of wrongful death and ordered to compensate the families in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The tragedy led to improved fire safety regulations nationwide.
“Chalk” honors the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in New York City. Each year individuals or descendants are assigned a victim’s name and address. On March 25 they find the place where the victim resided and chalk their name and age on the sidewalk. Some passersby will learn about the tragic event for the first time and others are reminded that this is the anniversary of that horrific tragedy. Lest we forget.