Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire, 100 years later


Scope of the Commission's Investigation

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The Legislature authorized the Commission to inquire into the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on in cities of the first and second class of the State, to the end that remedial legislation might be enacted for the protection of the life and health of all factory workers, and for the best interests of the public generally.

The Commission was given all the powers of a legislative committee, including the power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of books and papers, and the right to appoint counsel, secretary, stenographer and the necessary employees to aid it in carrying out its work. The members of the Commission were to receive no compensation for their services.

Organization of the Commission

The Commission was organized in August, 1911. Senator Robert F. Wagner was elected chairman, and Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, vice-chairman. The Commission appointed Abram I. Elkus, chief counsel, and Bernard L. Shientag, assistant counsel. Frank A. Tierney was selected as secretary.

Summary of Work in 1911

The Commission retained Dr. George M. Price as its expert in general charge of the work of inspection of manufacturing establishments, and of the problem of sanitation therein. Mr. H. F. J. Porter, a mechanical engineer, was retained as advisory expert on the fire problem. Under their supervision a trained corps of inspectors was put in the field.

The Commission held fourteen public hearings in the cities of the first and second class of the State: 222 witnesses were examined and 3,489 pages of testimony taken. In addition numerous executive sessions and conferences were held.

The following investigations were conducted:

  1. General sanitary investigation of factories in cities of the first and second class.
  2. Fire hazard in factories.
  3. Women's trades.
  4. Conditions in bakeries and physical examination of bakers employed therein.
  5. Lead poisoning and arsenical poisoning.
  6. An industrial survey of a selected area in New York City.
  7. Preliminary investigation of child labor in tenement houses.

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Special reports on each of the foregoing are fully set forth in the Commission's preliminary report in three volumes, which was published March 1, 1912, to which reference is here made. This report, together with a series of bills embodying the preliminary recommendations of the Commission, was submitted to the Legislature on March 1, 1912.

We shall not now go into the details of this preliminary report, except to call attention to the fact that one investigation alone, the general sanitary investigation, covered twenty industries and 1,836 factories, in which 63,374 men, women and children were employed. The bakery investigation covered 500 bakeries and included a careful physical examination of 800 bakers therein employed. The industrial survey in New York City covered 323 establishments, in which 10,698 men, women and children were employed.

Laws Enacted as a Result of the Commission's First Year's Work

The following bills recommended by the Commission in its preliminary report were passed by the Legislature during the session of 1912, and became laws:

  1. Registration of factories.
  2. Physical examination of children before employment certificate is issued.
  3. Fire drills.
  4. Automatic sprinklers.
  5. Fire prevention; removal of rubbish; fire-proof receptacles for waste material; protection of gas jets; prohibition of smoking in factories.
  6. Prohibition of the eating of lunch in rooms where poisonous substances are prepared or generated in the process of manufacture; adequate hot and cold washing facilities for such establishments.
  7. Employment prohibited of women within four weeks after child-birth.
  8. Summary power of Commissioner of Labor over unclean and unsanitary factories.

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Continuance of the Commission in 1912

On March 6, 1912, chapter 21 of the Laws of 1912 was enacted continuing the time within which the Commission might complete its investigations to the 15th day of January, 1913. The act extended the jurisdiction of the Commission to cities throughout the State, and also authorized the Commission to investigate general conditions in mercantile establishments. The Commission thereupon continued its investigations with the organization previously referred to, except that James P. Whiskeman, C. E., was retained as advisory expert on the fire problem.

Numerous civic organizations, which for many years had urged the appointment of a special commission to investigate the important subject of manufacturing in tenements, requested this Commission to investigate that problem, along with the other work that it had undertaken.

Investigations in 1912

In 1912 and 1913 the Commission conducted the following investigations:

  1. General sanitary investigation continued throughout the State.
  2. Fire hazard investigation continued.
  3. Manufacturing in tenements.
  4. Conditions in the canneries.
  5. Eight work of women in factories.
  6. The tobacco industry.
  7. The printing industry.
  8. Investigation of conditions in mercantile establishments.
  9. Investigation of dangerous trades, covering the following:

    • The chemical industry generally.
    • Wood alcohol.
    • Commercial acids.
    • Lead poisoning and arsenical poisoning.
    • Six miscellaneous investigations on occupational diseases and accidents in the dangerous trades.

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Detailed reports of all these investigations are fully set forth in the second report of the Commission, contained in four printed volumes, which was submitted to the Legislature in February, 1913.

Summary of Commission's Work in 1912

In 1912 and 1913 the Commission held 37 public hearings in different cities of the State, over 250 witnesses were examined, and 3,557 pages of testimony taken. In addition, numerous executive sessions were held, at which employees of different industries attended and testified.

The general sanitary investigation of 1912 included 45 cities of the State, and covered 1,338 industrial establishments, in which 125,961 wage-earners were employed. All told, the investigations conducted by the Commission during this period covered several hundred thousand men, women and children working in the different industries of the State. The canneries in the State were inspected by the Commission itself or its agents. Many factories were personally investigated by the Commission, and hearings held and testimony taken right in the factories.

Laws Passed as a Result of the Commission's Second Year's Work

With its second report the Commission submitted a comprehensive series of bills for the improvement of working conditions and for the complete reorganization of the Department of Labor, which practically amounted to a new Labor Code for the State of New York. The following bills recommended by the Commission...

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... in its second report were enacted into law by the Legislature during the session of 1913:

  1. Reorganization of Labor Department; Industrial Board.
  2. Penalties for violation of Labor Law and Industrial Code.
  3. Fire-proof receptacles; gas jets; smoking.
  4. Fire alarm signal system and fire drills.
  5. Fire escapes and exits; limitation of number of occupants; construction of future factory buildings.
  6. Amendment to Greater New York charter with reference to the Fire Prevention Law.
  7. Prohibition of employment of children under fourteen, in cannery sheds or tenement houses; definition of factory building; definition of tenement house.
  8. Manufacturing in tenements.
  9. Hours of labor of women in canneries.
  10. Housing conditions in labor camps maintained in connection with a factory.
  11. Physical examination of children employed in factories.
  12. Amendment to Child Labor Law; physical examination before issuance of employment certificate; school record; supervision over issuance of employment certificate.
  13. Amendment to Compulsory Education Law; school record.
  14. Night work of women in factories.
  15. Seats for women in factories.
  16. Bakeries.
  17. Cleanliness of workrooms.
  18. Cleanliness of factory buildings.
  19. Ventilation; general; special.
  20. Washing facilities; dressing rooms; water closets.
  21. Accident prevention; lighting of factories and workrooms.
  22. Elevators.
  23. Dangerous trades.
  24. Foundries.
  25. Employment of children in dangerous occupations; employment of women in core-rooms.

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The enactment of these laws marked a new era in labor legislation in the State of New York. It placed the State of New York in the lead in legislation for the protection of wage earners.

For the details of these statutes and the conditions that led to their recommendation by the Commission we refer to the second report of the Commission submitted to the Legislature, February, 1913.

Hearing on Commission's Bills Before Legislative Committees

A hearing on the bills recommended by the Commission was held before the joint Committees of Labor and Industry of the Senate and Assembly, in the Assembly Chamber, on February 19, 1913. At this hearing several hundred representatives of employers, labor unions and social and civic organizations appeared. The bills recommended by the Commission were commended and approved by practically everyone present for their fairness and effectiveness. The minutes of that hearing are referred to and made part of this report (See Volume IV of the Commission's Second report, page 2225).

At this hearing also many representatives of social and civic organizations called attention to the necessity for a comprehensive and complete investigation of wages paid in the different industries of the State, particularly those in which large numbers of women and children were employed. They urged that instead of the creation of a new Commission for that purpose, the present Commission be continued and empowered to conduct this investigation. In response to that demand chapter 137 of the Laws of 1913 was enacted.

Continuance of Commission in 1913

This act continued the Commission in office until the 15th day of February 1914, and authorized it to inquire into the rates of wages paid in the different industries of the State, and to report on the advisability of establishing minimum rates of wages. The Commission was also required to continue the...

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... investigation into conditions in mercantile establishments and, if advisable, to prepare and present to the Legislature a recodification of the Labor Law.

Work of Commission in 1913

In 1913, the following matters were taken up by the Commission:

  1. Wage investigation. - This was conducted under the direction of Howard B. Woolston, Ph.D., and Albert H. 1ST. Baron, and a force of investigators and inspectors. The investigation covered wages paid to men, women and children in four principal industries in New York City - paper box, candy manufacturing, department stores and mercantile establishments, and shirts.
  2. Fire Hazard in Mercantile Establishments. - This investigation covered department stores and other mercantile establishments in cities of the first and second class in the State, and was conducted by the Commission with the assistance of Miss Frances Perkins, Secretary of the New York Committee on Safety and a trained force of inspectors.
  3. Recodification of the Labor Law. - Pursuant to the act continuing the Commission in 1913, there was prepared a revision of the Labor Law. This was limited in the main to matters of form and arrangement, the substance of the law not being changed.

Reports Submitted to the Legislature in 1913

The following reports were submitted to the Legislature:

  1. Report on Wages and Working Conditions in the Confectionery Industry in New York City, by the Director of Investigation.
  2. Report on Wages and Working Conditions in the Paper Box Industry in New York City, by the Director of Investigation.
  3. Report on Wage Legislation, by Irene Osgood Andrews, Assistant Secretary of the American Association for Labor Legislation. This report, which was prepared for the Commission, made a detailed analysis of all the laws regulating wages in this and in foreign countries and described the operation and method of procedure under those laws.
  4. Minimum Wage Bibliography, by C. C. Williamson, Chief of the Division of Economics and Sociology of the New York Public Library.
  5. Recodification of the Labor Law. - Prepared with the assistance of the Legislative Bill Drafting Bureau of Columbia University.
  6. Report on Fire Hazard in Mercantile Establishments, by Frances Perkins, Executive Secretary of the New York Committee on Safety.
  7. Report on the Binghamton Fire, by James P. Whiskeman, C. E., Advisory Expert to the Commission.

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Status of the Wage Investigation When the Third Report Was Submitted

With the third report to the Legislature, there were presented the preliminary reports of the Director of Investigation on wages studied in two industries in New York City - the confectionery and paper box industries.

The huge mass of statistics that had been gathered in department stores and other mercantile establishments and in the shirt industry, were in process of tabulation. The Commission did not deem it wise, in the unfinished state of the work, to discuss in detail the results that had been obtained. It submitted, however, tables and statistics showing rates and earnings of men, women and children, in the candy and paper box industries in New York City, and made the following recommendation (page 42 of the third report):

"Facilities should be afforded for completing the tabulation of the statistics that have been gathered and for continuing the investigation of the industries named in the different cities of the State. There should also be a more extensive study of the various phases of the wage problem, such as: unemployment; industrial education; vocational guidance; efficiency of the workers; cost of living and family budgets; relation between low wages and vice, and other kindred subjects."

Pursuant to this recommendation of the Commission, the Legislature passed Chapter 110 of the Laws of 1914 which continued...

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... the Commission in existence until the 15th day of February, 1915, and authorized it to complete its investigations of the wage problem and submit a report thereon to the Legislature.

Laws Passed as a Result of the Commission's Third Year's Work

The following laws, recommended by the Commission in its third report, were passed by the Legislature in 1914 and have become laws:

  1. Sanitation in mercantile establishments. This covered provisions for seats for female employees; cleanliness of rooms; cleanliness of buildings; size of rooms; ventilation; drinking water; wash rooms and dressing rooms; and water closets.
  2. Hours of labor of women in mercantile establishments limited to fifty-four hours a week in the entire State.
  3. Hours of labor of children between fourteen and sixteen in mercantile establishments reduced from fifty-four to forty-eight hours a week and their employment prohibited for more than eight hours a day or after 6 o'clock in the evening of any day.

The recodification of the Labor Law, which had been introduced in the Legislature on the recommendation of the Commission, was not pressed for passage. Inasmuch as the Commission was to be continued for the purpose of completing its wage investigations, it was felt that it would be advisable to have the recodification of the Labor Law also go over for another year, so that manufacturers, real estate owners, labor organizations and others interested might have further opportunity to study the proposed revision and make any suggestions and recommendations on the subject they found necessary or advisable.

We have outlined very briefly the work of the Commission in 1913. For the details of the investigations conducted by it and the recommendations made to the Legislature, we refer to the third report of the Commission, submitted to the Legislature on February 14, 1914.

Work of the Commission in 1914

The Commission continued with the same organization as in 1913 except that Mr. Robert E. Bowling resigned because of...

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... pressure of work as chairman, of the Workmen's Compensation Commission and Mr. Laurence M. D. McGuire was appointed by Governor Glynn in his place.

The work of the Commission in 1914 will be considered under four main heads:

  1. Investigation of wages and wage legislation.
  2. Recodification of the Labor Law.
  3. Consolidation of departments making inspections of buildings in New York City.
  4. Participation in oases involving the constitutionality of laws heretofore recommended by the Commission.

Advisory Committees

The following advisory committees were appointed by the Commission to assist in its work:

  1. Advisory committee on wages and wage legislation.
  2. Advisory committee on the recodification of the Labor Law. (New York City.)
  3. Advisory committee on the recodification of the Labor Law. (Upstate.)

(1) Advisory Committee on Wages and Wage Legislation

The committee which rendered such valuable service last year was continued by the Commission and assisted us materially with their views and suggestions with reference to the conduct of the investigations, the preparation of the various reports, and the conclusions and recommendations of the Commission. The following is a list of the members of this committee:

  • Walter F. Wilcox, Chairman, Cornell University, Ithaca, N. Y.
  • Irving Fisher, Vice-Chairman, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
  • John B. Andrews, Secretary, American Association for Labor Legislation.
  • Gertrude Beeks, National Civic Federation.
  • Eugene S. Benjamin, Retired Merchant, New York City.
  • E. W. Bloomingdale, Counsel, New York Retail Dry Goods Association.

New York (State) Factory Investigating Commission, Fourth Report of the Factory Investigating Commission, 1915. 5 vols. Albany, J.B. Lyon company, printers, 1915, 1: 2-11.

Sweatshop conditions in the early 1900's