Tag Archives: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Videos for the Classroom: The 1911 Triangle Fire from “New York” by Ric Burns

This week, there are a multitude of events, programs and special documentaries that commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  This snippet is from Ric Burnsdocumentary New York: A Documentary History.

Over the years, I’ve become more skeptical of Ric Burns’ work, as well as of his more esteemed brother Ken.  The still photos, maudlin music and monotone narration seem to manipulate my emotions a little TOO much.  Furthermore, they put my kids to sleep: their work is definitely geared more toward adults.

In spite of these drawbacks, however, Burns’ piece on the Triangle Fire does excel where similar styles would produce gags anywhere else.  In fact, I was introduced to the fire through this film, and it still remains a remarkable introduction.  The photo stills alone would shock any audience.

This piece serves as a good primer for your students in learning about the fire.  Make sure to show it before the PBS Gestapo force it off of YouTube.

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Review of “Triangle Fire” from PBS’ American Experience

Brown building (New York University).

Brown Building (Asch Building in 1911), where the fire took place. Image via Wikipedia

There is a rare time when any PBS documentary disappoints me.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

One of the first pieces posted here at the Neighborhood centered around one of the most tragic, and important, industrial accidents in history.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Washington Square in New York.  146 people died in the horror, mostly trapped by the locked exits, due to bosses who wanted to keep union organizers out of their shop.  The Triangle Fire brought workers’ rights to national attention, and led to the first workplace safety laws in US history.

This month will mark the centennial anniversary of that tragic event–thus, a PBS documentary is in order, and none better than from the folks at the American Experience series.  This has to be among the best series of documentary films ever: it brought Ken BurnsThe Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, etc., as well as his brother Ric BurnsNew York: A Documentary Film.  Every Monday at 9, I forego any normal television–to the consternation of my better half–in order to enrich myself on another unknown tidbit of American history.

“Triangle Fire,” a short film about the disaster, left me a bit unfulfilled.

To those who have little knowledge of the events of 1911, this film offers a good primer.  It highlights the miserable conditions in the garment industry at the turn of the century, as well as the attempts to unionize and change their lot through general strikes in 1909-1910.  The film even highlights the struggles between the workers and the society matrons that support them, especially with regards to unionization.

Many of the “talking head” segments with historians and experts actually take place in the newly-renovated Brown building, which will be a museum to the 1911 fire.  The 8th, 9th and 10th floors of this building (which used to be known as the Asch Building) was where the Triangle factory was and where the fire raged.  It’s a nice touch–yet very unutilized.  To us, it looked like a cavernous loft, not the cramped, fetid workshop with piles of clothes and thread everywhere.

The dramatized pieces, usually involving actresses as garment workers toiling over sewing machines, didn’t give much of a sense of reality.  These scenes were shot almost in a haze, as if everything was a silent movie.  It may be nifty moviemaking, but it leaves the viewer with little sense of how the Triangle shop really worked.

Yet these imperfections can be overlooked if it weren’t for the worst sin of all: the filmmakers forgot to tell the rest of the story.

After the memorial to the dead, the film fades into tributes and concludes that the fire changed our lives forever.


It was criminal that no mention was made of the 1912-1912 factory commission, headed by Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, that investigated workplace conditions in the wake of Triangle.  Tammany Hall‘s connivance at the time was given scant attention.  Neither was there any note of Tammany’s boss, “Silent” Charlie Murphy, whose acquiescence, if not complicity, was required for real reform to be possible.  Nor was there any reference to the reformers who came out of the Triangle investigations and the factory commission–people like Frances Perkins, Belle Moskowitz, and even Robert Moses (as much as it pains me to say).

The story of the Triangle Fire, as told by PBS, was woefully incomplete.  So although this film may work for classrooms as an introduction to the disaster, many diehards of the subject will find little, if any, new material to absorb.

PS: On a positive note, PBS provides a nice website for the film, linked here.  The whole film is found here to stream to your classes, as well as supplementary articles, background information, teacher resources and primary documents.



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This Day in History 3/25: The 1911 Triangle Fire


Even though it’s sunny, it’s a little cloudier in the Neighborhood.

Today is a rather somber anniversary especially in light of the collective argument in this country about the role of government in people’s lives.

We can quibble all we want about how much of a role government should play in our everyday lives.  Yet those who wish government had no role in society should heed the 146 ghosts who haunt the Brown building (formerly the Asch building) in Washington Square in New York.

On March 25, 1911, the greatest industrial disaster in New York’s history occurred when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the above building.  Occupying the 8th floor of the building, the immigrant workers who worked there toiled under the most miserable conditions.  Fire escapes and safety procedures were nonexistent.  The heaping piles of cloth and thread made the entire floor a firetrap.  Exits were routinely blocked by rows of sewing machines, mostly to keep workers focused and to keep out union organizers.  In 30 minutes, 146 people were dead.  At least 41 of them died when, seeing that there was no hope, these women leaped from the 8th story windows to their deaths on the street below.

The fire highlighted working conditions in New York like never before.  Rich and poor were equally appalled at the carnage.  It was these workers, and many others, who fought for general strikes in 1909 and 1910 to organize reforms that would have saved many lives.

Yet even in this suffering, hope would rise.  Progressive reformers and Tammany Hall politicians, including State Senate leader Robert Wagner and Assembly speaker Al Smith, joined forces to finally right the wrongs that killed those women.  The 1912-1913 Factory Commission toured factories all over the state, and found equally wretched conditions in many of these places–if not more so.   The commission’s findings resulted in important reforms in workplace safety and workers’ rights, thus paving the way for the future social reform programs of the New Deal and Great Society.  A witness to the fire, Frances Perkins, who became Franklin Roosevelt‘s Secretary of Labor, recalled that the real start of the New Deal was March 25, 1911, the day the Triangle burned.

Today many people would argue  that Washington is overreaching its authority in instituting programs regulating banks and large investment enterprises–and there is a point here, to an extent.  When it comes to market downturns, the logical solution is to do nothing and let the natural rhythms of the market take their course.  Macroeconomics 101 should have taught us that.  Overregulation and overstructure, along with irrational greed, usually leads to market abberrations and speculative bubbles.  So the government probably has a boundary that it shouldn’t cross.

However, government is not like the “guns and butter” charts and graphs we had to painstakingly study in college (or cram through at the last minute, in my case).  The messiness of humanity, the suffering of people, and especially the fickle nature of an electorate cause government leaders to act less for the market than for the people, for good or ill.  Safety laws, social welfare and poor relief do not just happen by themselves, no matter what the monetarists say.  They were fought over and struggled and wrenched from a society that saw these “negative growths” as a hindrance, without seeing the long-term benefit.  Abuses are there, to be sure, and welfare reform and contraction are necessary.

Nevertheless, to those that believe social reform has no place in government, I would ask them to hear what the 146 ghosts of the Triangle fire have to say. Their suffering speaks for us all.

To find out more, read David Von Drehle‘s book about the fire.  My review of it is linked below:


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