March 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire shocks the conscience of America

There were no fire extinguishers. The ninth floor of the 10-story building had only two
doors leading out. By the time the workers there realized the building was on fire, one
stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames. The other door had been locked. The
single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the many desperate people trying to use
it. The elevator stopped working. Some women jumped to the ground nine stories below.
Firefighters could not stop the flames. (There were no ladders available that could extend

beyond the sixth floor.) The tragedy claimed 146 lives. The average age of the victims was 21. Most were Jewish or Italian immigrants. Every executive got out alive.

The deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on March 25, 1911
changed the public’s perception of unions. A silent funeral march brought together more

than 100,000 people.

The Triangle fire spurred on those determined to expose the conditions facing women
workers. The fire would be cited again and again as a vivid example of the horrors
women workers have to endure in an unjust economic order.
The issues which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought into view – such as the existence of
sweatshops and the exploitation of immigrant workers – still confront us. Globalization
under the control of a few billionaires has made these problems even worse.
There is much we can learn from the attitude conveyed by Rose Schneiderman, a
prominent socialist and union activist, who spoke to a memorial meeting for the Triangle
fire’s victims just days after the tragedy: “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death…”
“Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working
people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong
working-class movement.”
Indeed, too much blood has been spilt.
For those who want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its
aftermath, we recommend these books:
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle
Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802141514
“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the Fight for Workers’ Rights” by Julie Gilbert
Capstone Press
ISBN: 1496686888
(Children’s Reference — Target Age Group: 8-11 years old)
Chris Mahin is the manager of Barbara's Bookstore on State Street located in the Lower Level of Macy's in downtown Chicago. Prior to this, he was co-manager for several years at Barbara's Bookstore in Glenview, also called The Book Market. Chris began working for Barbara's in 1997 at the old Navy Pier store. He has worked in bookselling—on and off—since 1979. The first bookstore at which he worked was The Midnight Special Bookstore in Venice, California, then, at Guild Books in Chicago during the Harold Washington years.