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March 2016



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U.S. Census Bureau History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


Firefighters battle the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Firefighters battle the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911.
The fire killed 146 of the company's employees.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

March 25, 2016 marks the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The 1911 fire killed 146 and injured dozens of the garment factory's employees—the majority of whom were female immigrants. Although the factory's owners avoided prosecution for their role in one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, the fire continues to influence labor relations and workplace safety regulations.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris founded the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1900, and moved the factory to the newly built Asch Building, in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood in 1902. By 1908, the factory produced 1,000 or more of the $3 shirtwaists per day and the company topped $1 million in annual sales. However, while New York's "Shirtwaist Kings" enjoyed chauffeur service and employed servants at their tenth floor company offices, their 600 employees worked 12-hour days for meager wages and suffered harsh working conditions. The owners fired employees who agitated for improved pay and hired street thugs to beat employees who supported labor unions.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees first smelled smoke at the end of the workday on March 25, 1911. A fire that began in a pile of cloth beneath a fabric cutter's table quickly spread to the ninth and tenth floors. Employees scrambled to find unlocked exit doors and jammed themselves into elevators. Others—including Max Blanck and Isaac Harris—reached the Asch Building's roof and jumped to adjoining buildings. Twenty employees crowded onto the building's flimsy fire escape, which collapsed from their weight and heat from the fire. When the elevators stopped working and fire and smoke blocked escape, many fell or jumped from the windows. Firefighters watched helplessly as their ladders extended no higher than the sixth floor. Fueled by mounds of finished shirtwaists and cloth scraps, the tragedy was over in 30 minutes, claimed 146 lives, and remains the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City's history.

On April 11, 1911, a grand jury indicted Max Blanck and Isaac Harris on seven counts of manslaughter. During their three-week trial Link to a non-federal Web site, the prosecution argued that locked exit doors resulted in many of the fire's deaths. Evidence and testimony from more than 100 witnesses failed to convince the jury that the owners knew the exits were locked, and acquitted the pair on December 27, 1911. Three years later, Blanck and Harris settled several civil lawsuits for approximately $75 per victim. An insurance policy paid the owners $60,000—$410 per victim—for their loss of revenue.

In October 1911, New York passed the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It required factory owners to install sprinkler systems, established the New York City Fire Prevention Bureau, and expanded the powers of the fire commissioner. Additional regulations mandated improved building access and egress, established fireproofing guidelines, and required installation of fire extinguishers. The fire also highlighted the need for legislation that improved workers' eating and toilet facilities and limited the hours worked by women and children. Many states modeled their own employee health and safety laws after those enacted by New York after the Triangle Fire.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris continued to operate the Triangle Shirtwaist Company until 1918. Inspections at the relocated factory resulted in numerous safety and labor violations. Violations included use of counterfeit garment labels claiming "safe workplace" certification and locked exit doors during work hours.

You can learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its victims, as well as the garment industry and its workers using census data and records. For example:

  • Female garment workers accounted for 123 of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire's 146 victims. During the 1910 Census, 14,132 male operatives (semi-skilled) and laborers (unskilled) age 10 years and older reported working in factories producing shirts, collars, and cuffs—like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—compared with 48,221 females. Of the nation's 7,444,787 working women age 10 and older in 1910, 865,086 reported working in garment industries compared with 325,157 men.
  • Many of the fire's victims immigrated from Russia, Austria, and Italy and participated in the 1910 Census. For example, Catherine Maltese (age 39) immigrated to the United States with her children in 1907—two years after her husband Serafino. Serafino Maltese identified his wife and daughters Lucia (age 20) and Rosaria (age 14) after the fire; Bertha Wendroff (age 18) lived with her uncle at 205 Henry Street, in New York's Lower East Side; Bessie Dashefsky, (age 25), immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1907, and spoke English, but her parents spoke only Yiddish; Italian immigrant Mary Floresta (age 26) left behind her husband, John, and 3-year-old daughter, Beatrice; and Bertha Kula (age 19) lived with her brother's family on Lower Manhattan's 4th Street after immigrating from Austria in 1908. Other Triangle victims included: Annie Pack (age 18), Beckie Kessler (age 19), Esther Goldstein (age 20), Bertha Greb (age 24), Rosie Shapiro (age 17), Celia Eisenberg (age 17), Rose Bassino (age 31), Dora Evans (age 18), Jennie Stiglitz (age 22), Ida Jukofsky (age 19), Essie Bernstein (age 19), Gussie Rosenfeld (age 22), Fannie Lasner (age 21), Sam Taback (age 20), Bertha Wendroff (age 18), Sadie Nussbaum (age 18), and Esther Hochfield (age 21).
  • The ethnicity of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's employees reflected immigration trends in the United States in 1910. The majority of the Triangle Fire's 146 victims were foreign born—73 immigrated from Russia, 40 from Italy, 16 from Austria, 5 from Romania, and 1 each from Hungary, Germany, Jamaica, and England. The 1910 Census, conducted a year before the fire, found that approximately 13.5 million of the nation's 92.2 million population reported being foreign born. The majority of the foreign-born population reported immigrating from Germany (2.31 million), Italy (1.34 million, Ireland (1.32 million), Canada (1.20 million), and Russia (1.18 million).
  • The majority of the fire's victims were Jewish. According to The Jewish Population of the United States published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Link to a non-federal Web site, New York City, NY, was home to the largest Jewish community in the United States, numbering 861,980 in 1910. According to the AJC's American Jewish Yearbook, the nation's Jewish population totaled 2,044,762 in 1910–1911.
  • According to the 1910 Census, many young Triangle Shirtwaist Company employees spoke English, but their parents and older housemates continued to speak Yiddish or Italian at home. Of the nation's 92.2 million in 1910, 1,051,767 reported Yiddish and 1,365,110 reported Italian as their mother tongue. Only German exceeded Italian and Yiddish with 2,759,032.
  • One year after the Triangle Fire, the National Safety Council Link to a non-federal Web site estimates that 18,000–21,000 workers died from work-related injuries. Improvements in safety, training, and oversight—especially in the mining, manufacturing, and construction industries—have dramatically reduced workplace deaths and injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries recorded 4,821 fatal occupational injuries in 2014.
  • Labor union membership grew following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, particularly in the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (now part of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Link to a non-federal Web site) In 1910, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported approximately 2.1 million American workers were members of unions. By 1920, union membership rose to 5 million. Union membership peaked at 20–21 million in the 1970s. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 14.6 million wage and salary workers belonged to unions.


Firefighters race to the Triangle Fire

In this March 25, 1911 photo, firefighters race to fight the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. By the time the first firefighters
arrived, smoke and fire had already engulfed the top three floors of the Asch Building.

One year before the Triangle Fire, the 1910 Census found that 35,606 reported their occupation as "fireman."

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.




Clara Lemlich
View larger image




Shirtwaists


A "Shirtwaist" was a term for the blouses worn by American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Magazines like Vogue and Collier's featuring Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl" illustrations helped popularize the style.

Shirtwaists and long skirts—like those worn by Triangle employee and union activist Clara Lemlich (above)—could be worn by women in factories, offices, and around town.

At the height of their popularity, the manufacture of shirtwaists employed more than 60,000 garment workers in the United States, with the majority in New York and New Jersey.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor.















Charles W. Seaton
View larger image




This Month in Census History


On March 5, 1885, former superintendent of the census Charles W. Seaton died at his home in Williston, VT.

In 1872, Seaton invented a machine to tally census results from the 1870 Census. He also invented a matrix printing apparatus for census work. The agency used these inventions until replacing them with Herman Hollerith's electronic tabulation machine in 1890.











Did You Know?


U.S. Marshals collected data from manufacturers for the first time in 1810 while conducting the decennial census.

In 1905, the Census of Manufactures collected data separately from the population count and included the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

The Census Bureau conducted the first census of business (retail and wholesale trade) in 1930; transportation in 1963; construction in 1967; and finance, insurance, real estate, utilities, and communications in 1992. Today, the economic census covers all domestic nonfarm businesses other than those operated by governments.




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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: January 27, 2021