Photo Credit: A cartoon referring to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire depicts a factory owner, his coat bedecked with the dollar signs, holding a door closed while workers shut inside struggle to escape amid flames and smoke, 1911, artist unknown (name illegible), International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
To say working women didn’t have it easy in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a gross understatement. They had to endure extremely low wages (more so than working men), long hours, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and harassment from all sides. Even with Progressive Era reforms, change came very slow.
Probably the most infamous example of the consequences of these injustices working women had to face during this time was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and this year marks the 110th anniversary of that tragedy. I became fascinated with this piece of women’s history when I saw a PBS special on it a long time ago. The story, in fact, was part of what inspired me to write historical fiction. I have somewhere in my files a story idea based on this event.
What intrigued me and continues to do so is the question “Who were the victims of the fire?” Out of the list of 146 workers who died in the fire, only 15 were men (I counted them — there’s a list on the Cornell University website of all of them here.) That means that 131 women died in the fire. They were immigrant women, mostly, of Italian and Eastern European origin. A quick scan of the list shows the majority of these women were between the age of sixteen to twenty-five. But what do we really know about them? The Cornell University list doesn’t give us much more than their name, age, nationality, how long they had lived in the United States, and their address. That’s it.
What was their life like? We can put ourselves in the place of these women, many of whom had been in America for less than five years. They came with their families and with hopes and dreams of a better life, some escaping persecution (like the pogroms of the time where Jews were killed in the riots and mobs of Russia and Eastern Europe). What they got was extreme poverty, misery, and exploitation. Their workweek was hardly the 9-to-5 schedule we know today. It was not uncommon for them to start their workday before the sun went up and end it well after the sun went down. They worked ten or eleven hours a day, every day (no weekends off here!) with only a tiny break for lunch. How much were they paid? An average of six dollars a week, roughly equivalent to $173 today (that’s less than $10,000 a year). To add insult to injury, these women oftentimes had to bring their own materials (like sewing needles) because their employers refused to provide them.
They not only worked long hours for little pay, they also experienced severe indignity and humiliation. In most cases, they were so heavily monitored they didn’t even have the freedom to go to the ladies’ room whenever they needed it. Doors were locked and kept locked, ostensibly because employers were afraid they would steal materials and smuggle them out during working hours or leave for a bathroom break and remain out for too long. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire turned into a tragedy of massive proportions. There was one entrance that would have offered an escape for the workers but to get to it, they had to open the doors, and the doors were locked and bolted.
The fire escape leading from the upper floors where the fire hose water and ladders didn’t get to was in such bad shape that it collapsed when workers tried to use it as an escape route from the fire.
Photo Credit: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire escape after the fire, 1911, photographer unknown, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs: Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
These women also worked in appalling conditions. The floor was littered with dirt and debris from the work they did and never cleaned. Sanitation was a joke. For the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, most of these materials, like cotton and paper, were highly inflammable. Reports on the fire during the time lay blame on this waste lying around for allowing the fire to spread so quickly. How quickly? Everything was over in less than twenty minutes.
Working women appear in Book 3, Pathfinding Women, and Book 4, Dandelions, of my Waxwood Series, though in a different way. Nettie Grace, a Waxwoodian resident Vivian befriends in Book 3, introduces the Gilded Age belle to the life of working women. She owns a drug store and has dreams of setting up a women’s library and reading room for working-class women and helping poor women improve their reading and education. There is a scene in the novel where an argument ensues during a suffragist meeting between Nettie, whose passionate fight for working women’s rights, clashes with the more mild demands of the middle and upper-class women of the organization.
Things did begin to change in the latter part of the 1910s, partly as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. In New York, a commission set out to place safety and fire laws for employers as well as labor laws allowing for better working conditions overall. Most of the country followed suit.
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