Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later




(Chapter 561, Laws of 1911)

Page 13


The Commission appointed under Chapter 561 of the Laws of 1911, to inquire into the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on in the cities of the first and second class of the State, hereby submits the following PRELIMINARY REPORT:


On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire took place in the business establishment of the Triangle Waist Company, at No. 23-29 Washington Place, in the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York, in which 145 employees, mainly women and girls lost their lives.

This shocking loss of life aroused the community to a full sense of its responsibility. A superficial examination revealed conditions in factories and manufacturing establishments that constituted a daily menace to the lives of the thousands of working men, women and children. Lack of precautions to prevent fire, inadequate fire-escape facilities, insanitary (sic)conditions that were insidiously undermining the health of the workers were found existing everywhere. The need of a thorough and extensive investigation into the general conditions of factory life was clearly recognized.

Public-spirited citizens and representatives from the Fifth Avenue Association of the City of New York, the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and other organizations laid these facts before the Governor and Legislature of the State and asked for the appointment of a legislative commission to inquire into the conditions under which manufacturing was carried on in the cities of the first and second class of the State. As a result, the Act creating the Commission (Chapter 561 of the Laws of 1911) was passed and became a law on June 30, 1911.

Page 14

Pursuant to the provisions of that Act, the following Commission was appointed:

By the President of the Senate.

By the Speaker of the Assembly.

By the Governor.

The commission was authorized by the Legislature to inquire into the existing conditions under which manufacturing was carried on in so-called loft buildings and otherwise, including matters affecting the health and safety of the operatives as well as the security and best interests of the public, the character of the buildings and structures in which such manufacturing and business takes place, and the laws and ordinances regulating their erection, maintenance and supervision so that, among other things, remedial legislation might be enacted to eliminate existing peril to life and health of operatives and occupants in existing or new structures and to promote the best interests of the community.

The Commission was required to report to the Legislature on or before the 15th day of February, 1912.

The Commission was authorized to compel the attendance of witnesses, the production of books and papers, and to appoint counsel, a secretary, stenographers and necessary clerical assistants, and was otherwise to have all the powers of a legislative committee.

The members of the Commission were to receive no compensation for their services but were to be reimbursed for their actual and necessary expenses. The sum of $10,000 was appropriated for the expenses of the Commission.


The Commission organized on the 17th day of August, 1911, by electing Hon. Robert F. Wagner, Chairman, and Hon. Alfred

Page 15

E. Smith, Vice-Chairman, and by selecting Mr. Frank A. Tierney, as Secretary. The Commission appointed Mr. Abram I. Elkus, Chief Counsel, and Mr. Bernard L. Shientag as his assistant.

Through the generosity of the Committee on Safety of the City of New York and Mr. Robert E. Dowling, a member of this Commission, offices were furnished to the Commission without charge for which kindness the Commission expresses its thanks and appreciation.

The Commission retained as its expert in general charge of the work of inspection and sanitation, Dr. George M. Price, a physician of standing, practising in the City of New York, who had made investigations of a similar nature, and who is the author of several well-known text-books on sanitation.

Dr. Price, immediately upon being retained, on September 15, 1911, organized a corps of inspectors for field work in the cities of the first and second class of the State.

The Commission selected as its advisory expert on the fire problem, Mr. H. F. J. Porter, a mechanical engineer of the City of New York, who had made a study of fire problems, had written many articles on the subject and was known to be conversant with the situation. Under his supervision, inspections were made of numerous manufacturing establishments with reference to the fire hazard.

For the inspection work and fees of the advisory experts, the sum of $5,500 was expended by the Commission. Both Mr. Porter and Dr. Price agreed to give their own services for practically nominal sums, and both devoted themselves zealously to the work of the Commission.


The Commission was charged with the duty of inquiring into the following matters:

Hazard to life because of fire: covering fire prevention, arrangement of machinery, fire drills, inadequate fire-escapes and exits, number of persons employed in factories and lofts, etc.

Danger to life and health because of insanitary (sic) conditions: ventilation, lighting and heating arrangement, hours of labor, etc.

Page 16

Occupational diseases: industrial consumption, lead poisoning, bone disease, etc.

Proper and adequate inspection of factories and manufacturing establishments.

Manufacturing in tenement houses.

The present statutes and ordinances that deal with or relate to the foregoing matters, and the extent to which the present laws are enforced.

The Commission was to recommend such new legislation as might be found necessary to remedy defects in existing legislation, and to provide for conditions at present unregulated.

The Act creating this Commission limited the scope of its inquiry to cities of the first and second class, although the Commission was authorized to inquire into the conditions surrounding manufacturing in other cities of the State and country if it should so determine.


New York is the first State in the Union to authorize a general investigation of the conditions in manufacturing establishments within its borders. Several other States have appointed Commissions which were limited in the scope of their investigations, such as the Illinois Commission on the subject of occupational diseases, the Massachusetts Commission on Factory Inspection and the various Commissions on accident prevention and employers' liability. It remained for the State of New York to lead the way with an investigation of factory conditions, general in its scope and character.

According to the preliminary report of the Census of 1910, there were 1,003,981 men, women and children employed in the factories and manufacturing establishments of New York State. This is the average of the number employed during the year. The Commissioner of Labor gives the number of such employees as over 1,250,000. The following schedule from the United States Census Report of 1910 shows the number of establishments, the capital employed, cost of materials used, salaries paid, value of products and number of wage earners and clerks in the cities of the first and second class in the State, together with their totals.

Page 18

In addition to the actual wage earners concerned, the Commission's inquiry bears indirectly upon the millions of women and children who compose the families of these workers and are dependent upon them for support.

Health is the principal asset of the working man and the working woman. The state is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers who contribute so materially to its economic wealth and its industrial prosperity.

Aside from the humanitarian aspect of the situation, economic considerations demand from the State the careful supervision and protection of its workers. Failure to perform this obligation will produce serious results in the workers of the future. It will affect the working capacity of the future generation.

The State not only possesses the power and the right, but it is charged with the sacred duty of seeing that the worker is properly safeguarded in case of fire; that he is protected from accidents caused by neglect or indifference; that proper precautions are taken to prevent poisoning by the materials and processes of his industry, and that he works under conditions conducive to good health, and not such as breed disease.

Indifference to these matters reflects grossly upon the present day civilization, and it is regrettable that our State and national legislation on the subject of industrial hygiene compares so unfavorably with that of other countries.

Factory workers particularly need protection and supervision. Among them disease more easily finds its victims than among other classes of workers. Evry epidemic has drawn most of its victims from the working classes. Statistics show the greater mortality of those engaged in factory work, as compared with those in other occupations.

The death rates of males per 1,000 according to occupations for registration states (12th Census, U.S., Vol. III, p. cclxi), are as follows:

Mercantile and Trading 12.1
Clerical and Official 13.5
Professional 15.3
Laboring and Servant 20.2

Page 19

New York has already expended great sums of money to conserve its natural resources. The conservation of human life, the most valuable of all things, has received but little attention. The appointment of this Commission was the first comprehensive attempt to investigate the waste of human life in our modern industrial system, and to endeavor to devise means to prevent such a sacrifice, surely a matter of equal importance to the preservation of forests and streams.

Fires and industrial accidents are fortunately only occasional and extraordinary events. Their effects are visible and immediate so they are impressed forcibly upon our minds. But the common, everyday incidents of industrial life, the lack of ventilation, the long hours of labor amid insanitary (sic)surroundings, the failure to give notice to employees of the dangers of their occupations and how to avoid them, these work unnoticed, but the toll of human life they exact is very great.

The illness and diseases caused by these conditions can in large measure be prevented, and prevention is always better than cure and less costly. In his report on National Vitality, Professor Irving Fisher shows that the economic gain to the nation that would result from proper precaution to prevent sickness and disease, would amount to at least $500,000,000 per anum.

A New York State manufacturer testified before the Commission that he had installed a great many sanitary improvements and labor-saving devices tending to the comfort of his employees. He expressly disclaimed any philanthropical motives in so doing, but said it was a decided benefit to him in his business from a purely dollars-and-cents standpoint.

During the past few decades methods of protecting machinery in use have been vastly improved. Labor-saving devices have been introduced everywhere, but much remains to be done by the manufacturer to conserve the most valuable of all assets - the working man and the working woman. It cannot be said that this waste is the result of intentional wrongdoing. It has simply been nobody's business, and therefore has been neglected and unheeded.

Page 20

The investigation has already produced results. In many cases the manufacturers themselves were unaware of the conditions under which they required their employees to work, or if indeed they were aware of these conditions, did not realize their evil effects. Many did not know what could be done to improve them. They took these conditions as a matter of course.

The authorities in many cities, because of the publicity of the Commission's inquiry, began special investigations, which resulted in many cases in improved conditions. The educational value of the Commission, therefore, has been very great. The manufacturers who had not only complied with the provisions of the law but had gone beyond its requirements, should feel rewarded by the contrast which was shown.

A general awakening has taken place throughout the State. A far larger number of inspections by authorities have been made than ever before. No great reliance, however, can be placed upon such a momentary or spasmodic awakening. When its cause is no longer present, conditions relapse into their former state, and ther is little real improvement.

To improve the industrial situation permanently, clear, concise and comprehensive legislation is needed.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 1:13-20.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's