WeWalk: Behind the Scenes of Opening the Way

Opening the Way is a walking tour celebrating women's history in downtown Manhattan. It is a multifaceted new project developed by the award-winning nonprofit organization Women's eNews. The walk honors the achievements of women such as Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells -- 21 women in all. This blog has been created to update fans of the walk on its exciting developments and expansion. Please join us in revitalizing history that has been ignored or forgotten!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Centennial Anniversary of the Tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, NYC
Today marks one of the most significant days in women’s history this year. It is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—the largest workplace disaster in New York up until the World Trade Center attacks. It sprung into action a labor rights movement to enable fair and safe workplace conditions in the future.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company specialized in the popular “shirtwaist” which the New York Times blog describes as a “brash but sensible pairing of tailored shirt and skirt” that offers a scandalous peek of its owner’s ankles. It was preferred by women of the day for its utility, as opposed to the longer, more confining dresses that they watched their mothers wear. Located one half-block east from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, NYC, the Triangle factory was the largest maker of shirtwaists in the city. It packed hundreds of young female seamstresses close together on the top three floors of the Asch building, compelling them to work long hours for $5 or less per week.

The infamous fire took place towards the end of the work day on March 25, 1911, when somebody tossed either a lit match or cigarette into a waste basket. It spread rapidly as it caught to the scraps of fabric hanging overhead, and workers scrambled to escape. But the doors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or leaving early, and fire ladders could only reach the sixth floor, whereas most workers were on the ninth floor. (The owners, who were on the tenth floor, were notified by telephone and got out safely, as did other high executives.) Onlookers watched in horror as more than 50 people jumped to their deaths. An additional 19 people fell into an empty elevator shaft, 20 fell from a fire escape, and at least 50 burned to death. The fire ultimately killed 146 people, all but 23 of whom were young (mostly immigrant) women.

Frances Perkins, advocate for safety
One of the onlookers was Frances Perkins, a social worker who was having tea in Washington Square Park across from the factory. The fire motivated her to later become one of the most important advocates of reform, and she was named executive director of an organization that formed as a result of the tragedy, called the Committee on Safety. New York State subsequently passed the strongest workers’ laws in the nation and became a role model for other states. It began to mandate automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings, fire drills at large companies, and factory doors that swung outwards rather than inwards. It established minimum wages and maximum hours, and demonstrated that the state indeed has a responsibility to protect its workers.

Women’s eNews will be hosting filmmaker Jamila Wignot on Sunday, March 27, to screen and discuss her recently released PBS documentary “Triangle Fire,” which examines the circumstances behind the fire and the impact it had on reform, labor rights and women’s rights in American history. The event is free, so if you haven’t RSVPed yet make sure to do so soon!

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