News & Politics

HBO's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Documentary: Is History Bound to Repeat Itself?

Interviews with labor experts and relatives of those lost in the fire illuminate the importance of labor protection laws.

HBO airs 'Triangle' through the end of April; check local listings for dates/times. On Saturday, March 25, CNN will air the documentaryat 11 PM EST/8 PM PST.

The history of New York City is studded with stories of triumphs and tragedies, but perhaps none resonates more today than the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which took place on March 25, 1911. The incident, which killed 146 people in 18 minutes (all but 17 were female), illuminates issues of women’s empowerment, labor rights, and immigration — a potent stew that continue to trouble the country today.

This month, HBO is presenting the documentary “Triangle: Remembering the Fire,” directed by Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson. The narrative is framed through interviews with descendents of those who had a personal involvement with the historical event. This approach creates an emotive, rather than a clinical point of view. The Executive Producer on the project, Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, lost a great-aunt in the fire.

The film begins with a montage of young women, primarily Jewish and Italian, who have emigrated to America to flee poverty, famine, and persecution. Surviving the rigors of ocean travel in steerage class, what awaited them were not “streets lined with gold.” Rather, they found jobs for minimal pay with unregulated work conditions, often 12 to 14 hours per day.

These women and young girls, working to help their families survive, took up seamstress employment in factories that had sprung up to fill the demand for the shirtwaist blouse. The fashion trend combined a tailored shirt with an above the ankle skirt, affording women more freedom of movement in their dress. Originally modeled on the man’s button-down shirt, it was a garment of clothing that liberated the modern woman.

Toiling in harsh surroundings, the work included sewing patterns and finishing buttonholes. The job of clearing the floor of fabric scraps was assigned to the youngest girls. The untenable working environment led to the general strike of September 1909. Although women still did not have the vote, a force of 20,000 women demanded equitable labor conditions. The nascent International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWIU) directed and organized. They encouraged women to take to the streets, where they formed picket lines and stood their ground against hired hooligans — as well as the police, who roughly hauled them off to jail.

The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Issac Harris, were also immigrants. Known as “The Shirtwaist Kings,” they had become financially successful. A wide chasm separated their uptown luxurious lifestyle from that of their workers in the slums of the Lower East Side. Susan Harris, the granddaughter of Max Blanck says without reserve, “From a personal point of view, I’m happy my grandfather didn’t have to go to jail. From the victims’ and families’ point of view, if my daughter had died in the fire and he hadn’t been my grandfather, I probably would have shot him.”

The factory was in a new skyscraper, the Asch Building, located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. It occupied the top three floors. In these large loft spaces, machines were brought in to facilitate mass production. There was a fierce demand for faster output, due to the intense competition between manufacturers. The 9th floor of the factory was packed with 300 machines and virtually no elbow room. Workers were viewed as “cogs” in a wheel. Despite their efforts, the women could not break the bosses of the Triangle factory, who were able to survive a 13-week industry-wide strike. Few demands were met, and the women returned without union recognition.

On the Saturday of the fire, 500 workers punched their time cards for the final day of their week. At 4:40 p.m. a fire broke out on the 8th floor. A discarded cigarette may have been the origin. Fabric and paper accelerated the flames. The newly constructed Asch building should have been safe. However, the stairways were only two and a half feet wide, the doors opened in, and there were no sprinklers — not yet a legal requirement. With no prior fire drills or contingency plans, panic ensued.

The switchboard operator contacted the 10th floor, which housed the executives. However, she neglected to alert the 9th floor, and minutes of crucial time were lost. With the Washington Place exit door locked to prevent potential pilferage, the next option was the window ledges. Ladders brought by the fire department were too short, missing the 9th floor by 30 feet. On the street, 90 feet below, thousands of people watched in horror as workers chose to jump rather than be enveloped by flames. They fell from the windows, hugging or holding hands.

As bodies piled up on the sidewalk, the seasoned New York City coroner wept. Corpses were so badly burned they were difficult to identify. One girl was able to recognize her mother from how she had plaited her hair that morning. Make shift coffins were brought to the scene; temporary morgues were set up on the East River near 26th Street.

It is impossible not to draw a correlation between the 1911 tragedy and what transpired on 9/11. The rawness of the archival photographs and witness descriptions speak volumes. Ray Ott, a firefighter who was at the World Trade Center, creates a link when he speaks about his grandfather — a first responder on the Triangle Factory scene.

For the charred corpses that were not identifiable, the union wanted a public funeral. The city refused, fearing they would become “martyrs to organized labor.” In protest, 100,000 people held a requiem in the rain, marching in their own funeral procession through the streets, past the Asch building. 250,000 people showed up in support.

On April 11, Blanck and Harris were indicted for manslaughter. At their trial, an all male jury deliberated less than two hours before finding them not guilty on all counts. The owners made a substantial amount of money from their insurance policy, and resumed business. Building inspectors and the legislature were called to task.

Yet, the fire became an effective catalyst. Out of the ashes, action was born. Alfred E. Smith IV discussed how his great- grandfather, Governor Alfred E. Smith, evolved from a politician who looked out for those with money, to a reformative legislator. Teaming with Robert Wagner on a commission appointed to investigate conditions around the disaster, they forged major changes through mandates for safety measures. Minimum wages, working hours restrictions, and unemployment support paved the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Also on the commission was Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor for Roosevelt, who had been in the neighborhood the day of the fire. She later said, “The New Deal started on March 25, 1911.

The movie clearly ties the fire and its lessons to contemporary topics. Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United/SEIU (descended from the ILGWU) stated flatly, “We face the same threats today. Workers need to be protected, whether in Bangladesh or in Brooklyn. Whether it’s an oil rig, a garment factory, or a coal mine.” Labor historian Leigh Benin, who lost his 19-year-old cousin when she jumped from the building, reflected, “People forget the Triangle fire at their peril. If people want to know what deregulated industry would look like, look at the bodies on the sidewalk outside the Triangle building.”

Workers’ rights at the turn of the 20th Century and the connection to the Wisconsin public-employee union demonstrations are evident. The filmmakers employ images of the BP Oil spill and recent mining fatalities to underscore the point that the push for profits over people remains fixed.

What is more subtle are the references to the class struggle that has always been the underbelly of the American dream. The haves versus the have-nots; newly arrived immigrants struggling to claim a place in the national mosaic; divisions within ethnic groups between those who have made it and those who are fighting for a toehold. Most of the women who died in the fire didn’t speak English and were adapting to their new environment. Yet, they found the courage to demand equity in the new land that had held out so much promise.

The film concludes with a complete list of all the fire’s victims, including those previously unidentified bodies buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.

It is a fitting remembrance for the centennial anniversary.

Get pieces like this delivered to your inbox weekly. Sign up for our Culture and the Arts Newsletter here.

Marcia G. Yerman writes profiles, interviews, essays, and articles focusing on women's issues and the arts, housed at She is the co-founder of cultureID, a platform dedicated to a nexus of culture and activism.
Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Personal Health