Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Workers & Working Conditions

  • An Italian immigrant woman in New York carries a bundle of clothing which will be worked on at home by the entire family for piece rate pay.
  • Extended families work together to finish a few steps in the garment making process.
  • While older children and adults in this Italian family work on various steps in the garment making process, they also care for younger children, prepare meals and take care of daily chores in their Chicago home.
  • Children as young as three or four years old worked into the night trimming threads and pulling basting stitches.
  • A woman sews on a treadle sewing machine at home, while children assist with hand work.
  • A print which appeared in New York State's Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, 1885, shows cloak makers working at 12 Hester Street in conditions typical of sweatshops.
  • Dark cramped shops made exhausting work still more difficult and dangerous. Children hired in violation of child labor laws were helped to hide in large boxes of cloth on the rare occasion when inspectors checked working conditions.
  • Rose Schneiderman, a garment worker and union organizer, works next to the large pile of material that makes up her day’s assignment. Her experience in sweatshops together with her middle and upper class contacts in the Women's Trade Union League enabled her to bridge class lines, at least temporarily, and helped stabilize relationships that provided social, political, and economic support during the shirtwaist strike and later.
  • Workers at a small bench hand finish garments while managers look on.
  • Pressers use gas-heated irons in a small garment shop.
  • A presser smokes a pipe as he smooths finished garments. The risk of fire in crowded garment sweatshops was extreme yet some workers and managers disobeyed 'no smoking' rules.
  • Pressers work far from window light keeping pails of water handy in case of fire.
  • Straining backs, hands and eyes, those responsible for special stitching and fine work might sit close to windows in order to have better light while the sun shone. Others were forced to work under relatively-ineffective gas lights.
  • Women sew by hand while men press finished garments. Garment workers were typically not allowed to talk or sing on the job. Supervisors docked pay for late arrival, talking, taking too long in the rest room or missing Sunday shifts.
  • Operators in the Katz and Maringa Shop, 231 East 32nd Street, work at tables of four with pressers standing in the back of the room. Long workdays at piece rates were often insufficient to pay high rents, sustain families, and save for a better life.
  • Scraps littered the floor in most garment shops. Over 95 percent of New York shops were found defective with respect to safety. Buildings were without fire escapes and adequate exits. Cluttered and crowded working conditions posed a health and fire risk in many shops, as did locked doors funneling workers leaving at the end of the day past a check point where bags were searched for stolen tools, material, or finished clothing.
  • Hand and machine sewing were both tiring when done for many hours each day. During the slack season, the limited work available was assigned preferentially and any public sign of discontent guaranteed that others would get the few paying jobs.
  • Hand sewing is done by men and women facing a narrow bench, while men operate sewing machines at a long row of paired work stations. Some unethical subcontractors took advantage of newly-arrived immigrants forcing them to work long hours for the right to keep their job. A standard 56-hour week might stretch to 70 hours without overtime pay.
  • Men use heavy gas-heated irons to press finished clothes keeping fire pails nearby. Pay varied by job, gender, experience, and age, but it was often inadequate to meet daily needs. In some shops operators were charged high rates for electricity to run their sewing machines. Some had to supply needles and thread, and others had to rent the chairs on which they sat, helping secure the owners' profit margin.
  • Cutters, sewing machine operators, hand finishers, and pressers all work in a small space. Fabric yardage and skirts in various states of completion are draped and piled on all available surfaces.
  • Women wearing shirtwaist blouses gather around a long table with gas-heated irons. Pressing was most often done by men.
  • Women garment workers assemble with a few men for a group portrait. A “No Smoking” sign in English and Yiddish is posted in the work space.
  • Tables of men operating sewing machines are well lit by daylight entering unusually-large windows. Overhead lights, necessary in the center of the room and in all areas during early morning and evening hours, were typically inadequate for the task and workers often suffered significant eyestrain.
  • Sewing machine operators, mostly women, work at long, paired tables overseen by managers. Work baskets fill the space between chairs and scraps clutter the floor around their feet. The mix of cheap, skilled- and unskilled- labor fueled garment manufacturing growth. The industry doubled in size from 1900 to 1910, making it increasingly cost effective to bring many who had worked at home into larger garment factories.
  • Workers in the dressmaking room. “Some firms have dressmaking departments such as this in their own buildings; others have distinct plants in town or outside the city. Several hundred people are employed in this way by many of the large firms.”
  • Young women, sewing machine operators, take a break for a group photograph. Though they smile and relax in the sun-lit factory, the work space is crowded and would be difficult to exit quickly in an emergency.
  • Women posed for a group photograph reveal close friendships, sewing forms, and scattered waste fabric.
  • The Women’s Trade Union League campaigned for the 8 hour work day, safe working conditions and respect for women at work and in society.
Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's