Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



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Testimony was given that at least 50 per cent of the fires occurring to-day could be prevented by taking certain simple and inexpensive precautions. Some experts placed the percentage of preventable fires as high as 75 per cent. Fire extinguishment has received careful attention in the past, and to-day the means supplied for extinguishing fires are many. But little attention until recently, has been given to the subject of fire prevention. An ounce of prevention in the case of fires, as in any other case, is worth a pound of cure.

The principal causes of fires in the city of New York during the past few years have been rubbish heaps, lighted matches, cigars and cigarettes, and exposed gas jets. It is believed by the Commission that the prohibition of smoking in manufacturing establishments, and the cleaning up or removal of rubbish, cutting and waste from the floors, and providing fireproof receptacles therefor, will be most effective in the prevention of fires.

The fire in the Triangle Waist Company building was caused by a lighted cigarette thrown upon a pile of cuttings. Smoking should be strictly prohibited to both employees and employers. The Commission in its investigation visited among other establishments, a cigar factory in a converted tenement house when there were several hundred employees at work. The foreman was asked whether smoking was allowed. He stated that smoking was prohibited - although at that moment he was busily engaged in smoking his own cigar. A number of witnesses testified...

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...that while smoking ought to be prohibited, its prevention was a hopeless task. Such an attitude surprises the Commission, as it believes from its investigation that a little education upon the subject will convince both employee and employer of the wisdom and necessity of this law. Smoking in a factory is a constant menace to all employed therein.

Chiefs of the Fire Departments in nearly every city testified that fires in factory buildings would be reduced by 50% if provisions for the removal of rubbish, the protection of gas jets and the prohibition of smoking were enacted and were promptly and fully complied with. The requirement of these provisions will work no hardship upon anyone, and will entail no great expense. Their proper enforcement depends, however, upon adequate and systematic inspection and prompt and effective punishment for violation. Sufficient means should be given the department charged with the enforcement of this law for the strict punishment of those who fail to comply with its provisions, so that there may be no excuse for non-compliance.

The Commission therefore recommends on the subject of prevention of fires the following:

Fireproof receptacles. There shall be provided in every factory building or manufacturing establishment a sufficient number of properly covered fireproof receptacles, to be placed as may be directed by the First Commissioner of the City of New York, and elsewhere by the Commissioner of Labor, in which shall be placed all inflammable waste materials, cuttings and rubbish. Waste materials, rubbish and cuttings shall not be permitted to accumulate on the floors of any factory or manufacturing establishment, and the same shall be removed therefrom not less than twice during each day. All rubbish, cuttings and waste materials shall be entirely removed from a factory building at least once in each day.

Gas Jets. All gas jets or lights in factories or manufacturing establishments shall be properly enclosed by globes, or wire cages, or shall be otherwise properly protected.

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Smoking. Smoking in all factories or manufacturing establishments shall be prohibited. A notice to that effect setting forth the penalty for violations thereof shall be posted on every floor of such establishments in English and such other language or languages as the local Fire Commissioner or Fire Marshal shall direct.


No matter what care and what precautions may be taken, fire will occur, and attempts are frequently made by employees to extinguish them before calling upon the public authorities. In almost every case this is a serious mistake. In the Triangle Waist Company and Equitable Building fires, lives would have been saved and the fire would not have been nearly so severe, the Fire Department had been promptly notified. In this regard the Commission can do no more than lay before the public the facts disclosed. It had been the intention of the Commission after examining into the matter, to recommend the installation of automatic or manual fire alarms in certain factories. After conferring, however, with the Fire Commissioner and the chief of the Fire Department in New York City, the Commission has decided to withold (sic) for the present, this recommendation for the following reasons:

  • 1st. The present fire-alarm telegraph system at Fire Headquarters is entirely inadequate to deal with the large number of alarm stations that would be created as a result of this provision.
  • 2nd. The business of installing automatic or manual fire alarms in the City of New York is in the hands of but three or four concerns, and there is danger, if any such mandatory legislation were enacted, that it might cause serious inconvenience to those affected thereby.
  • 3rd. The Fire Department at present has no control over the systems of automatic fire alarms, and their efficiency does not always prove equal to the test.

The Commission emphatically states, however, its belief in notification of Fire Headquarters by some automatic or manual means...

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...on the premises, in case of fire in a factory building where more than 250 persons are employed. The Commission expects to take up this matter again during its continuance, and believes by that time there will be such changes in conditions that it will be able to make some recommendations upon this subject.


The Commission gave much thought and attention to means of notifying the occupants of a building in case of fire. After consideration of the facts before it, the Commission is of the opinion that the dangers from panic and excitement caused by any alarm, such as the ringing of a bell indicating on which floor the fire had occurred, when the alarm might be false or the fire slight and readily controlled, outweighed the advantage to be gained. Therefore the Commission does not at this time recommend any automatic fire-alarm system, save as may become necessary in connection with the operation of a fire drill hereinafter provided for.


The Commission personally witnessed fire drills in factory buildings, and some testimony was taken upon this subject. The Commission believes that in factory buildings where more than twenty-five persons are regularly employed above the second story, a fire drill should be conducted. One of the purposes of the fire drill should be to indicate to the occupants where the stairways are, and the means of reaching them. It has been found in many of the larger buildings where the occupants use the elevators to go to and from their work, that the location of the stairs or exterior fire-escapes is unknown. A fire drill at any [A line is evidently missing here.] vision, and the Commission is therefore of the opinion that the drill should be supervised by the local Fire Departments. A fire drill is also extremely useful in preventing panic. While of course not so effective in the case of occupants of a loft or factory building as in the case of school children, it undoubtedly would go far in preventing a mad rush towards the exits. If the fire drill...

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...accomplishes nothing more than to acquaint the occupants of a building with the different exits, to compel them to use those exits at stated intervals, and to keep them clear and unobstructed, it will have served its purpose. The periodical fire drill will constantly bring to the minds of employee and employer alike the possibility of fire and the necessity for using every proper means to prevent the same. The Commission makes the following recommendation:

Fire Drills. In every factory building or manufacturing establishment in which more than 25 persons are regularly employed above the ground or first floor, a fire drill of the occupants of such building shall be conducted at least once in every three months under the supervision of the local Fire Department or one of its officers. Every employer and employee shall aid and assist such Fire Department and its officials in conducting such fire drill. In the City of New York the Fire Commissioner, and elsewhere the State Fire Marshal, is authorized and directed to prepare appropriate rules and regulations to make effective this provision; said rules and regulations to be posted on each floor of every such factory building or establishment.


Reference has already been made to the size of windows leading to balconies connected with exterior fire-escapes. In some cases these windows are too small in size to admit the free passage of a grown person. The windows are usually of ordinary glass which does not resist fire at all. The flames break through these windows, and the result is that no protection whatever is afforded to those going down the fire-escapes. The use of wired glass instead of ordinary glass would serve as some means to check the flames and would give the employees on the upper stories who are compelled to resort to the exterior fire-escapes a much wider margin of safety.

Fire Departments are unable to reach with their ladders any point above the seventh story of a building or more than ninety feet above the ground. Therefore ordinary precautions are insufficient to safeguard properly the workers above the seventh floor. Much testimony was taken upon the use and efficacy...

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...of automatic sprinkler systems. The Chiefs of various Fire Departments testified that one of the greatest means of preserving life, especially in high buildings and in those where wooden trim is used, is an automatic sprinkler system. This system, briefly, consists of a tank, usually upon the roof of the building, containing a large supply of water, communicating with pipes which run along the ceilings on the various floors. At regular intervals in these pipes are placed what is known as "sprinkler heads," fastened with fusible nuts which automatically break and discharge a flow of water when exposed to a certain degree of heat. The automatic sprinkler confines the fire to a limited area and checks it in its incipiency.

Testimony as to the efficacy of sprinkler systems varies, but the lowest estimate of their proper working is 75 per cent and the highest 95 per cent. Proof was given that in the New England mills where sprinkler systems have been in use for many years, there was only one loss of life where a sprinkler system was installed, and in that case the water supply for the system was cut off just before the fire occurred. The installation of an automatic sprinkler eventually pays for itself in the form of a reduction of fire insurance premiums granted where the system is installed.

Such reduction of premiums is allowed, however, only if the system is one approved by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, consisting of representatives of all the fire insurance companies in the United States. This Board has approved of only a few systems, and the manufacturer who desires to obtain benefit of a reduction of insurance must install one of these approved systems. Testimony was given indicating that there was some arrangement or understanding by which high prices were charged for these sprinkler systems.

It was also testified that any competent plumber could install a sprinkler system which would be effective in the case of fire.

The installation of the automatic sprinkler system has been recommended by Fire Chiefs throughout the State, and by nearly all of the experts on the fire problem. The Commission does not desire to make any drastic recommendation on this subject, but it is convinced that in buildings over seven stories or 90 feet in height, in which wooden floors or wooden trim are used, and more...

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...than 200 people are employed above the seventh floor, the only safe means to prevent the spread of fire and the loss of life incidental thereto would be the installation of an automatic sprinkler system.

Chief Kenlon of the New York Fire Department testified that had an automatic sprinkler system been installed in the Triangle Waist Company building, he believed that not a single life would have been lost. If manufacturing is carried on above the seventh story of a building, or 90 feet above the ground, the manufacturer should be required to furnish every possible device to safeguard the lives of his employees in case of fire.

The Commission therefore makes the following recommendations:

Windows of Wired Glass. All windows and doors leading to outside fire-escapes shall be not less than two feet in width by five feet in height, and shall be constructed of wired glass.

Automatic Sprinklers. In all factory buildings over seven stories or 90 feet in height in which wooden floors or wooden trim are used, and more than 200 people are regularly employed above the seventh floor, the owner of the building shall install an automatic sprinkler system in the form and manner approved by the Bureau of Fire Prevention in the City of New York and in all other parts of the State by the State Fire Marshal. Such installation shall be made within one year of the passage of the law carrying this recommendation into effect, the Fire Commissioner of the City of New York, and the State Fire Marshal elsewhere, to have the discretion to extend such time for good cause shown, for an additional year.


The Commission ascertained by investigation and testimony, that exits to outside fire-escapes and to interior stairways, especially when they lead through other portions of the loft, were often unknown to many of the operatives. It certainly is necessary to indicate clearly the location of these exits.

A contributing cause to the loss of life in the Triangle Waist Company fire was the lack of clear passageways leading to the...

Page 45 and stairways. The employees were so crowded together, seated at tables containing machines, with chairs back to back, that when a great number of them attempted to leave at the same time there was panic and confusion. The following is a diagram showing the arrangement of the sewing machines, and the congestion prevailing on the ninth floor of this building, where most of the deaths occurred.

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Diagram of the Ninth Floor of the Asch Building

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In the report made by the Superintendent of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, it was stated that 20 dead bodies were found near the machines "apparently overcome before they could extricate themselves from the crowded aisles." The condition which prevailed in this building obtains in many similar buildings. The necessity for clear and unobstructed passageways to exits should be absolutely insisted upon, otherwise with the slightest panic, even without a fire, severe injuries, if not loss of life, would occur.

The Commission has already commented on the width of doors and windows leading to outside fire-escapes. It has also found that the doors leading to stairways are too narrow. This is especially so in the old converted tenements where these narrow doors are a source of danger in case of panic or fire. The first rush is always for the doors. The attempt upon the part of a number of persons to pass through at one time leads to a jam, and if the doors are dangerously narrow, many would lose their lives. When there are only a few persons employed upon a floor a narrow door is not a serious objection, but where a number of persons are employed, regard for their safety requires that such dangerous conditions be remedied.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 1:38-47.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's