On March 25, 1911, one of the largest garment factories in New York City, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, caught fire. The fire spread quickly in the cramped, wooden factory, and within one hour, 146 women workers had either asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths from windows on the burning upper-story floors. Workers from nearby factories, family members, and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods gathered around the factory that night to identify the bodies, which lay covered on the sidewalks.
The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire inspired and united women workers and reformers. Francis Perkins, the secretary of the middle class reform group the National Consumer’s League, witnessed the fire and spoke these words at a 1961 memorial service for the victims of the fire:
Out of that terrible episode came a self-examination of stricken conscience in which the people of this state saw for the first time the individual worth and value of each of those 146 people who fell or were burned in that great fire…Moved by this sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster.
Perkin’s memory of the fire was a major motivation behind her work in labor reform. Like Perkins, Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman, leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, were inspired to work to establish safety laws in garment factories by the trauma of losing friends in the fire. Schneiderman, Newman, and Perkins worked together as investigators in the New York Factory Investigating Committee, which looked into the safety failures that led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and advised the state legislature to pass new safety measures. The shocking and harrowing experience of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire showed women reformers of all classes the need for protective safety laws to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. The unity among women’s reform groups that resulted from their shared distress after the fire was crucial to the success of labor reform during the Progressive era.(1)