Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


The Factory Girl's Danger

The Outlook, April 15, 1911. pp.817.

By Miriam Finn Scott

On Friday evening, March 24, two young sisters walked down the stairways from the ninth floor where they were employed and joined the horde of workers that nightly surges homeward into New York's East Side. Since eight o'clock they had been bending over shirt-waists of silk and lace, tensely guiding the valuable fabrics through their swift machines, with hundreds of power driven machines whirring madly about them; and now the two were very weary, and were filled with that despondency which comes after a day of exhausting routine, when the next day, and the next week, and the next year, hold promise of nothing better than just this same monotonous strain.

They were moodily silent when they sat down to supper in the three-room tenement apartment where they boarded. At last their landlady (who told me of that evening's talk, indelibly stamped upon her mind) inquired if they were feeling unwell.

"Oh, I wish we could quit the shop!" burst out Becky, the younger sister, aged eighteen. "That place is going to kill us some day."

It's worse than it was before the strike, a year ago," bitterly said Gussie, the older. "The boss squeezes us at every point, and drives us to the limit. He carries us up in elevators of mornings, so we won't lose a second in getting started; but at night, when we're tired and the boss has got all out of us he wants for the day, he makes us walk down. At eight o'clock he shuts the doors, so that if you come even a minute late you can't get in till noon, and so lose half a day; he does that to make sure that every person gets there on time or ahead of time. He fines us for every little thing; he always holds back a week's wages to be sure that he can be able to collect for damages he says we do, and to keep us from leaving; and every evening he searches our pocketbooks and bags to see that we don't carry any goods or trimmings away. Oh, you would think you are in Russia again!"

That's all true; but what worries me more is a fire," said Becky, with a shiver. "Since that factory in Newark where so many girls where burnt up there's not a day when I don't wonder what would happen if a fire started in our shop."

"But you could get out, couldn't you?" asked the landlady.

"Some of us might," grimly said Gussie, who had been through last year's strike, and still felt the bitterness of that long struggle. "What chance would we have? Between me and the doors there are solid rows on rows of machines. Think of all of us hundreds of girls trying to get across those machines to the doors. You see what chance we have!"

"Girls, you must leave that place!" cried the landlady. "You must find new jobs!"

"How am I going to find a new job?" demanded Gussie. "If I take a day off to hunt a job, the boss will fire me. I might be out of work for weeks, and I can't afford that. Besides, if I found a new job, it wouldn't be any better. All the bosses drive you the same way, and our shop is as safe as any, and safer than some. No, we've got to keep on working, no matter what the danger. It's work or starve. That's all there is to it."

The next morning the two sisters joined their six hundred fellow-workers at the close-packed, swift machines. All day they bent over endless shirt-waists. Evening came; a few more minutes and they would have been dismissed, when there was a sudden frantic cry of "Fire!" - and what happened next all the country knows, for it was in the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory that Becky and Gussie Kappelman worked. The fire flashed through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the great building like a train of powder; girls were driven to leap wildly, their clothes afire, from the lofty windows; and in a few brief moments after the first cry one hundred and forty-three workers, the vast majority young girls, were charred bodies heaped up behind doors they had vainly tried to beat down, or were unrecognizable pulp upon the street far below.

And as for Gussie and Becky, who had gone to work that fatal day knowing their danger, as all the workers knew it, but helpless in their necessity what of them? Gussie was one of those who met a horrible death. Becky, in some way unknown to herself, was carried down an elevator, and to-day lies in a hospital, an arm and a leg broken and her head badly bruised. Frequently the young girl calls for her older sister, but her condition is too precarious for her to stand the shock of the awful truth, and the nurses have told her that Gussie is injured in another hospital. And so Becky lies in the white cot waiting until her wounds and Gussie's shall have healed and they can again be together.

Conservatives, liberals, radicals of all shades and intensity, are agreed in denouncing the criminal indifference that is shown to the murderous conditions in which men, women, girls and mere children are compelled to earn their bread. The Triangle disaster has revealed an appalling state of affairs that exists though the factory district of New York City, and that presumably exists in varying degrees of badness in other cities. From the standpoint of safety of the workers everything was wrong. And yet it is hard to single out one person or institution and say that there belongs the blame. The proprietors of the Triangle Company were violating no law, and were but following the instincts and practices common among manufacturers in their trade. The inspection of Building Department has been inadequate and loose, and ugly stories of "graft" have been set afloat. The ultimate blame must be traced back to the inadequate building laws, and thence to an indifference or unawakened public that allowed such laws to be passed and to continue in existence. The huge modern factory buildings of New York City are what is called "fireproof;" such construction is safest to the builder and secures him a lower rate of insurance than would non-fireproof construction. The building in which the Triangle fire took place is as sound as ever; outwardly, it bears a few signs of fire, and doubtless the comparatively trivial property loss was covered by insurance. The great impulse that brought the present New York laws into existence was the safety of the dollar and the best profit upon it. The safety of the hundreds of thousands of workers, their possible terrible deaths, the widespreading tragedies that death would bring upon the workers' families and loved ones such things were given hardly a thought against the mightier dollar.

The tragedies that such tragedies bring upon loved ones! Two days after the fire I was in an East Side Street that was a street of funerals. It was crowded with sobbing men and women; children wept with their parents; even little babies must have felt the bitter sorrow, for they clung tightly to their shawled mothers in an agony of terror. Among the poverty-stricken funeral cort ges was a hearse containing a rough pine box, and behind the hearse was carried a Jewish wedding canopy, all of black and here I learned the story of another Becky and her Jacob.

Becky Kessler was out on strike for sixteen weeks last year against the Triangle Company, and was among the most valiant of those who struggled for safer and fairer conditions. She picketed about the shop morning and night, in cold and rain; she suffered outrageous treatment from the police; she was three times arrested. When the strike of forty thousand shirt-waist makers was settled, the Triangle was one of the few big shops that did not sign the union agreement, though in order to get its workers back it made a verbal promise to maintain union conditions which promise, by the way, it very quickly forgot. Becky did not want to return, but she was penniless, she was half starved, she owed her kind landlady for four month's lodging, she had an old father in Russia dependent upon her wages; and so, after her sixteen weeks' fight, she was driven by terrible necessity into her old position, and upon terms and conditions dictated by the company.

The Triangle firm had two systems of payment, piece-work and a fixed weekly wage, and it imposed upon each employee whichever method of payment is preferred. Becky was a swift and clever worker; in the busy season, working at the piece-rate work scale, she could make from eighteen to twenty dollars a week. The Triangle Company, seeing how quick she was, with sharp business sense, changed her from piece-work to a weekly wage, and managed to get the same amount of work out of her for half the money. In the case of slow workers the reverse of this process was practiced they were not given a regular weekly wage, but were put upon piece-work. But, though working at half her real value, Becky kept on. Out of her week's earnings she kept one dollar with which to cover her car-fares, breakfasts, and lunches, and the rest she divided between her debts and her father.

Her great sustaining hope was that she was soon to be married. Her life with Jacob would be one of poverty, to be sure, but she would be free from the grind of the shop. Toward the end of winter, Jacob begged her to give up her work and take a rest before their marriage, which was drawing very near; she needed a rest, he insisted, for she was sadly worn from hunger and exposure when she had gone back to the shop, and the strain of her hard, tense work had given her no chance to recover. But she refused. She must work up to the very day of the marriage, for she must come to him with all her debts paid and with some money laid aside for her father. Besides, the marriage was now but a few weeks off. So she worked on, joyously checking off the days till the wedding day. And the end of this love's young dream was what I saw in that East Side street of funerals an incinerated bride-to-be in a pine box, a black marriage canopy, and in the next procession a bowed, white-faced young man with streaming eyes.

How many love-dreams were blasted by that Triangle fire, God only knows. But here is a matter of cold statistics: On one floor of the Triangle shop, where they had fallen from charred fingers, where found fourteen engagement rings.

The dangers that lurk in the factory, waiting their chance, do not menace to the worker alone; they strike blows, often irreparable, upon the worker's relatives. There was little Rebecca, who came from Russia two years ago at the age of sixteen. Too slight to operate a machine, she at first sewed on buttons, and later cut out the fabric underneath lace insertion, for which she was paid $6 a week. Shortly after her arrival here her father and mother died, back in Russia, leaving a boy of eight, who was taken into a neighbor's family, and a girl of thirteen. This sister Rebecca determined to send for, and she denied herself food, denied herself clothing, held tight to every penny, till at last she had scraped together enough to make the first payment on little Minnie's steerage ticket, which she bought on the installment plan.

Three month ago Minnie arrived, her only baggage the clothing upon her back. Of course Minnie had to go to work at once, but her sister-mother, Rebecca, dared not to stop work even for a day to help Minnie hunt a place. So Minnie looked for herself, and in a little shop on Grand Street she found a boss sufficiently disinterested to take on a little greenhorn like herself at nothing per week. Rebecca, with two mouths to feed on her six dollars, and with the regular installments on Minnie's ticket to pay, had even less for herself than ever. She became very thin and weak; often she wished to stay away, but she dared not do so, not only because she could not afford the loss of a day's pay, but more because she feared her absence would lose her her job. The company could not stand for having one of its machines idle for a day, and thus earning nothing for them. Once she fainted at her work. She was taken to a dressing-room, was revived, and instead of being sent home to rest, was sent directly back to her work.

She clung desperately to her strength and her job; she had to, for Minnie's sake. On Friday night before the fire she came home very ill with the grip. Her landlady urged her to stay at home for at least a day. But Rebecca would not consent to this; she said she would lose her job if she did so. All night she tossed about in fever, but the next morning she dressed herself and went weakly back to the shop.

Well Rebecca lost her job, anyhow. She was among those who sought safety by the great building's single fire-escape that gave way, and who were found dead at its foot.

And behind there is left the little Minnie, penniless, unskilled, uneducated the foothold Rebecca was trying to aid her win not yet secured no helpful relatives in Russia, not a friend or a relative in America and even the price of her ticket to this country not yet entirely paid for. "If that factory had been built safe, Rebecca would have seen that Minnie got a chance," Minnie's kind-hearted but poverty-stricken landlady wailed to me. "But what is going to become of her now?"

Yes, what is going to become of her? I had to echo in dismay, knowing the dangers and temptations with which New York surrounds the ignorant, penniless unprotected girl. What is going to become of her? Perhaps the fate that heartless factory conditions inflicted on Rebecca is, after all, a kinder fate than that which these same factory conditions are holding in reserve for little Minnie.

Yes, the danger to the worker is not limited to the worker; it reaches out and strikes down at the very ends of the world. Esther was the main support of her old parents in Rumania, though her brother Abraham, who was also in New York, contributed all he could. She was a very skilled waist-trimmer, and when she went to work for the Triangle Company after the strike she received $12 a week. Her excellent work was noticed, and she was soon offered a place over five newly arrived Italian girls, to supervise and instruct them. This offer was presented to her in the light of a promotion, and Esther so regarded it and gladly accepted. Under Esther's instruction, the eager Italian girls made rapid progress and soon were able to do almost as good work as Esther herself; moreover they were willing to do it for $6 and $7 a week, which to their non-Americanized standard seemed a tremendous sum. Thereupon Esther was told by the company that they could no longer pay her old wages; she would have to accept a cut or go.

Esther already perceived that, under promise of being promoted, she had been used to train girls who would underbid her; but she was in debt after the long strike; she must send money to her parents, she dared not be out of work, so there was nothing for her but to accept the reduction.

She stayed on, lowering her own standard of living to the very minimum in order that her parents might suffer as little as possible from the cut in her wages.

Esther was paid every two weeks, and Saturday, March 25, her pay was due. On Friday evening she wrote a letter to her parents saying that she and her brother were together sending $25 for the Easter holidays; Saturday evening, after she had been paid, there would be nothing to do but buy the draft, inclose it, and mail the precious letter.

Esther was paid, as was the custom, before her Saturday's work was quite done, but she never came home with her wages. She was among the scores who were trapped by insufficient exists, and who were crisped and blackened by the flames; her money was lost in the vain, wild rush for life. To pay for her funeral her brother used all his money pawned all his belongings, including his overcoat, save the clothes in which he stood borrowed from all sides. And up in the tenement room which Esther shared with three other girls, in the top of her little trunk, was found the unsealed letter that was to carry her Easter present to her far-distant parents a present that now was never to be sent.

"Won't it ever be safe for us to earn our bread!" the agonized mother of one of the victims cried out to me. And sobbingly she told me of a generation-long struggle against the dangers and oppressions of the worker. As a girl, and even after her marriage, she had been a shirt-waist maker; she had seen the dangers from fire, from disease, from overwork, from underemployment, and she had joined every effort to secure some betterment of conditions. Her husband was a cloak-maker, and he, too, during all his working life had thrown himself into every struggle for improvement. They had tried to save, in order that their children might have an education and not be forced into factories; but the cost of living rose faster than wages, and they had been able to lay nothing aside. Last summer came the cloak-makers' strike, and for long weeks the husband did not earn a penny. Debts piled up; their credit became exhausted; the mother would have gone back to her trade, but she was nursing a new-born baby. In this stress of circumstances they were forced to let their eldest child go to work Rosie, then barely fourteen.

Rosie found a place in the Triangle factory. After the fire she did not come home. The parents searched distractedly among the burned and mangled bodies collected from, in, and about the building. Upon an unrecognizable heap of remains that had been gathered from the Belgian blocks that paved the street they found a tarnished locket, and in the locket were their own pictures. That was how they knew their child.

"For twenty years we have struggled for better conditions!" the mother burst out to me in her black bitterness of soul. "For twenty years! And what have we won? A death like Rosie's! They have made their shops better and safer for their machines and their goods, but for us workers O my God! how long will we have to stand it? How long?"

And that mother who had fought the long fight, and now at the end of it all sat in her dark tenement kitchen, with a new life in her arms, mourning her mangled dead that mother's anguished voice sounded in my ears as the outcry of the millions of workers: "How long must we stand this how long? Will it never be safe for us to earn our bread?

Typical sweatshop of the early 1900's