Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later



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It has long been known that there are many more fires in the cities of the United States than in the cities of the same size in Europe. There the fires are not only less frequent, but are also far less destructive. In this country fires occur almost hourly in which large amounts of property are destroyed and lives are lost.

Testimony presented to the Commission shows that in the city of New York alone, there is an average loss of one life a day, by fire. Our public machinery for extinguishing fires, especially in the larger cities, is remarkably efficient, yet this loss of life and property continues to grow.

According to Geological Survey Bulletin No. 418:
"The actual fire losses due to the destruction of buildings and their contents amounted (in 1907, the latest year for which statistics are available) to $215,084,709, a per capita loss for the United States of $2.51. The per capita losses in the cities of the six leading European countries amounted to but 33 cents, or about one-eighth of the per capita loss sustained in the United States."

The Hon. Walter L. Fisher, Secretary of the Interior, in an address before the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the National Fire Protection Association, states the situation admirably:

"If the Government should suddenly lay an annual tax of $2.51 on every man, woman and child in the United States on a promise of spending the money for some useful purpose, that promise would not avail against the storm of protest which would be aroused. Nevertheless, a tax which in the aggregate amounts to that is being paid by the people of this country. It is the annual fire loss of the nation upon buildings and their contents alone. It is expended not in productive enterprise, but in death and destruction, and an even larger sum is annually expended upon fire protection and insurance premiums. Not only is this property loss paid by our people, but, in addition, annually 1,500 persons give up their lives, and nearly 6,000 are injured in fires.

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Possibly in no other direction is the national habit of waste more clearly exemplified than in the comparative indifference with which we permit such a sacrifice. In not other civilized country are conditions so bad as they are here.

It seems ridiculous that a people so apt and so eager to seek out and destroy the mysterious and hidden enemies of mankind should be so slow and sluggish in fighting a foe so plainly in sight and so readily vanquished. We have let the world in seeking out the causes of pestilence and removing them. We are in the very vanguard of the battle against tuberculosis, typhoid and yellow fever, and still we stand apart and let the older nations lead the fight against an enemy much more easily conquered."

The consideration of the fire hazard problem is divided into two parts:

  • 1st. Investigation of conditions in existing factory buildings, and recommendations to render those premises safe.
  • 2nd. Requirements for future construction of factory buildings which will reduce the fire hazard.

Factory buildings may be classified as special factories or buildings especially constructed for manufacturing purposes, generally occupied by one or two establishments, loft buildings, which may be fireproof or non-fireproof, and dwellings or tenements originally erected for living purposes, but which have been converted into factories.


Five kinds of buildings are used for factory purposes in the City of New York.

  1. The converted tenement or dwelling.
  2. The non-fireproof loft building.
  3. The fireproof loft building less than 150 feet in height.
  4. The fireproof loft building over 150 feet in height.
  5. The factory building proper, constructed for factory purposes and occupied by one establishment, which may be fireproof or non-fireproof.

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Three of the above types are especially dangerous when used as factory buildings. These are (1st) the converted dwelling or tenement house which was never intended to be used for business purposes above the ground floor; (2nd) the non-fireproof loft building usually six or seven stories high; and (3rd) the fireproof loft building less than 150 feet in height.


Owing to the increase in land values and change in the residence localities, a number of buildings formerly used for living purposes have been made over into factories. The buildings are from four to six stories in height, usually 25 feet wide by about 60 to 85 feet deep. The exterior walls are brick or stone, the floors, interior trim, stairways, beams and doors are of wood. The stairways are usually from two to three feet in width, the doors often open inward; there are no automatic sprinkler systems, no fire prevention or extinguishing appliances except fire pails, which are not always preserved for fire purposes; the workrooms are divided by wooden partitions and crowded with employees, while the machines are placed as close together as space will permit, without regard to means of exit. There are exterior fire-escapes with balconies on each floor, connected by vertical ladders (those of late construction by inclined stairways), which usually lead to a yard in the rear of the premises, or to some blind alley from which there is no means of escape. There is ordinarily a ladder from the lowest balcony to the ground, but it is generally not in place, or very difficult to use in case of fire because of its weight. There is usually but one door leading from the street.

Here we have a type of building constructed for dwelling purposes only, in which the number of occupants is multiplied any number of times without any change in the exit facilities provided.


The loft building marks an evolution in the construction of factory buildings in the City of New York. The first lofts were built...

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...about twenty-five years ago, for the storing and sale of merchandise, but the manufacturer soon found it desirable to have his goods manufactured in workrooms adjacent to his salesroom and directly under his supervision.

Increase in land values, moreover, forced the manufacturers to extend upwards instead of spreading out horizontally. The availability of the loft for manufacturing purposes was soon appreciated, and to-day this type of building is generally used for factory purposes.


The non-fireproof loft building is usually six or seven stories in height, 25 feet wide by 80 feet in depth, with brick, stone or iron fronts and rears, brick side walls, wooden floors and wooden trim. There is usually one unenclosed wooden stairway, varying in width from two to three and one-half feet, and often winding around the elevator shaft. Wooden doors lead to the stairways; very often the doors open inwardly. These buildings, as a rule, possess exerior (sic) fire-escapes similar to those found on the converted tenement described above. Usually every floor in these buildings is occupied by a different tenant, in some cases there being two or more tenants on each floor. The tenant uses the floor, or his portion of it, as salesroom, office and factory, dividing one from the other by wooden partitions. In the manufacturing part there are usually a number of machines placed as close together as possible with little aisle space between. These buildings are to be found in numbers on the lower east and west side. The number of people permitted to work on a floor is restricted only by a provision of the Labor Law which provides a minimum of 250 cubic feet of air space per person and entirely disregards the floor area. As the distance between floor and ceiling is at least ten feet, and often more, this cubic air space is easily obtained without any appreciable prevention of overcrowding and congestion. The present law does not require the posting of the number of people allowed even by this standard, and so prosecutions for violations of this law are practically unknown. These buildings usually do not contain any automatic sprinklers. They have fire pails, which are rarely kept for the proper purpose. A few of them have standpipes, with hose which is often useless.

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The fireproof loft building less than 150 feet in height, that is about 12 stories or under, has brick, stone or metal exterior walls, wooden floors and trim, stairways of metal or stone and elevators. Stairways are generally about three feet wide, enclosed by fireproof walls. These buildings are either 25, 50, 75 or 100 feet wide by 80 to 200 feet in depth, the usual size being 50 by 80 or 90 feet. The conditions of occupancy as to tenants are similar to those in the non-fireproof loft buildings just described. The Triangle Waist Company occupied a building of this type at 23-29 Washington Place. That building, in its construction and interior is typical of the so-called fireproof loft buildings, and indeed much better than hundreds of buildings used for similar purposes in New York city (sic) to-day. Some of these buildings have automatic sprinkler systems. They are usually provided with stand pipes, connected with the city water supply, and have on each floor a hose of required length, and some are provided with exterior fire-escapes. It is to be noted that in these buildings the elevators are used to go from the street to the upper floors not only by the employers but by the employees. In most cases the latter are absolutely unaware of the location of the stairways. Auxiliary fire appliances are present in most cases, but their existence is unknown to the workers and no care is given to their preservation. The interior arrangements are similar to those existing in the non-fireproof loft building, the same wooden partitions, the same congestion and doors opening inwardly.

Testimony shows that the danger in these so-called fireproof buildings results from the use of wood for floors, doors and trim. The buildings are usually of such a height that the Fire Department ladders and extensions, and even the water towers, do not reach the upper stories. Fire occurring in these places under conditions of manufacture which are hereafter described usually results in the destruction of the entire contents of the building while walls and floors remain substantially intact.


This building is more than twelve stories in height. The walls are of brick, stone or metal, the floors are of cement or stone, the...

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...trim and doors are of metal or fire-resisting material, the stairways are of stone or metal, and enclosed by fireproof walls. There are usually several stairways and elevators. The buildings are sometimes supplied with automatic sprinkler systems and have standpipes to which hose is connected on each floor, and other appliances for extinguishing fires. In addition, these buildings sometimes have exterior stairways leading either to the street or to the ground in the rear. The buildings are usually 50, 75 or 100 feet or more in width and are from 75 to 200 feet deep. They are occupied for manufacturing and other purposes, and sometimes one tenant is found to occupy more than one floor. In these buildings, if a fire occurs, it is usually confined to the floor on which it starts since it cannot burn up or down except through the windows.

Above the sixth floor these buildings are open to the same objections as are fireproof buildings less than 150 feet high, namely the upper floors cannot be reached by the firemen. The exit facilities are usually well constructed, but the number of people who occupy these buildings is not determined by either exits, width of stairways, or floor space. The only restriction is, as in all other buildings, the 250 cubic feet of air space provision. The distance between the floors is usually 10 to 15 feet, so the cubic air space may fulfil the legal requirement while the floor presents a congested condition.


Particular reference is made to the fireproof building which is believed on account of its construction to be safer for the occupants than the non-fireproof building and to require few if any precautions, either to prevent fire or to preserve the safety of the occupants in case of fire. The testimony discloses the weakness of these suppositions. While fireproof building itself will not burn, the merchandise, wooden partitions and other imflammable (sic) material burn as readily in a fireproof building as in any other. It is assumed by all fire insurance experts that when a fire occurs on any one floor, the contents of that entire floor will be destroyed. It is like placing paper in a fireproof box - it confines the fire to that locality, but the fire is just as hot and just as...

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...destructive within its bounds. Therefore, unless means are provided for automatically extinguishing fires and for the rapid escape of the occupants, loss of life may occur even in fireproof buildings.

The Triangle Waist Company fire is illustrative of this fact. There the building was practically left intact, yet the fire was severe enough to cause the death of a large number of the occupants. In the fireproof building the fire is confined to a limited area and is therefore more easily controlled. The occupants of floors over eighty feet from the ground cannot, however, be reached by the Fire Department's ladders, and must trust for escape to the stairways or exterior fire-escapes.

In many of these buildings the occupants manufacture garments and other inflammable articles. The floors are littered with a quantity of cuttings, waste material and rubbish, and are often soaked with oil or grease. No regular effort is made to clear the floors. No fireproof receptacles are provided for the accumulated waste, which in some cases is not removed from the floors for many days. Many of the workmen, foremen and employers smoke during business hours and at meal times. Lighted gas jets are unprotected by globes or wire netting, and are placed near to the inflammable material. Very often quantities of made-up garments and inflammable raw material are stored in those lofts. Fire drills are not held, save in rare instances, exits are unmarked and the location of the stairways and exterior fire-escapes is often unknown. Access to the stairway and outside fire-escapes is obstructed by machinery, wooden partitions and piled-up merchandise, while in some cases the fire-escape balcony is at such a distance from the floor as to make it almost impossible for women employees to reach it without assistance. Wired glass is not used in the windows facing the balconies of the fire-escapes except in fireproof buildings over 150 feet high. In some cases the window leading to fire-escapes are not large enough to permit the passage of grown persons readily. Automatic or manual fire-alarms are hardly ever provided, except in the larger fireproof buildings.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1912, 3 vols. (Albany, New York: The Argus Company, printers, 1912), 1:28-34.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's