The Combustible Mix of Power, Fashion, Health and Safety: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

There was a time when Republicans protected progressives and Democrats protected the wealthy class. That changed, in spurts, about 125 years ago. During this period when few focused on worker health or safety, New York’s worst workplace disaster until 9/11 occurred.

Tammany Hall, headquarters of the New York Democratic Party, was the stronghold of the ruling elite – initially defending the wealthy. And then, in a brutal struggle for personal power, they switched allegiances, currying favor with the burgeoning immigrant working class who could now command the most votes. Politics, passion and ideals were not part of it; it was purely about control – money, jobs, bribes and patronage.

It was the time when the Parisian fashion industry dominated more than fashion – including insurance practices, employment and even vocabulary. “Waists” referred to “Shirtwaists”, button-down blouses resembling men’s clothing, the new fashion at the turn of the century, reflecting the burgeoning roles of women and a more casual fashion of dress.

These trends intersected on the day the fire broke out on the 8and floor of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village, NY, rapidly decimating 8and9andand 10and floors. Ironically, the fire broke out a day after the Workers’ Compensation Act of 1910 (proposed by progressive Republican Governor Charles Evans Hughes) was struck down by New York’s highest court as unconstitutional.

The investigation revealed a host of construction flaws and unenforced regulations that contributed to the loss of life. This would have been a great opportunity to demand modern fire safety techniques and insurance reform.

Instead, District Attorney Charles Seymour Whitman, “a deeply political man” with views on the White House, focused his efforts on a juicy story – the blame of factory owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck , believing that the publicity would be personally productive. .

Harris and Blanck: the kings of the shirt

Certainly, Blanck and Harris deserved to be charged. Nevertheless, DA Whitman’s strategy, focused on the conviction of seven counts of manslaughter, was risky. And indeed, the couple were acquitted of all charges, thanks in large part to the efforts of a legendary lawyer, Max Steuer.

The Whitman v. Blanck and Harris case involved whether the ninth-floor staircase door was locked at the time of the fire, preventing escape. Article 80 of the labor law was clear: at no time should the doors to the stairs be locked. Testimonies on this were somewhat equivocal, but the evidence mainly supported the locked door theory, including the mountain of charred bodies found next to it. The intrepid prosecutor’s office even managed to locate the lock buried in the rubble and, together with forensic experts at the time, presented evidence that the bar was in the locked position.

The defense, of course, produced rebuttal testimony; but the jury was satisfied that the door was locked. The problem was that the judge told the jury that the owners must have known the door was locked at the time. On this point, the recalcitrants of the jury felt that there was not enough evidence to reach this conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt. Even the testimony that the owners’ longstanding practice of keeping only one door open at closing time so that workers could be inspected for theft (although petty, the evidence showed it s was a major concern of the owners), did not influence the jury.

Certainly, deaths would have been avoided if the door had been opened. But avoiding further safety breaches – the responsibility for which fell to the construction department – would have clearly mitigated the loss of life, but went unaddressed for months as politically unappealing.

Here are a few:

  • The non-smoking policy was not enforced. (An unextinguished cigarette butt or a match at 8and the ground would have been the initiating culprit).
  • “Housekeeping” measures were not implemented. An estimated ton of highly flammable cotton waste was sequestered under cutters’ tables, left for months without disposal, providing the perfect breeding ground for sparks.
  • Instead of the required third staircase, the building owner was allowed to construct a dilapidated fire escape (ending in a dead end above a skylight in the basement). There was even no way to get from the bottom of the fire escape to the street.
  • The doors to the building opened inwards – because the staircase landings were too narrow to accommodate outward swinging doors. “The workers were so tight against [it]…and thronged so profusely that the door couldn’t open,” even though it wasn’t locked.
  • There was no direct communication with the 9and ground. The 8th floor telephone connected to 10and floor- and had to be redirected to 9and by the operator. By the time the alarm reached the 10and floor, the operator had disappeared.
  • The buildings were too tall to allow access for firefighters, who at the time only had six stories. Any structure above that height was, in essence, a death trap.

After the fire, fire safety laws were enacted, mostly through the leadership of Frances Perkins (later Secretary of Labor), and almost every shortcoming in the Asch building was corrected. It was no coincidence that by 1913 the all-powerful Tammany Hall, under the new leadership of Robert Wagner and Alfred Smith, had shifted allegiance and was now on the side of the beleaguered worker.

It could and should have happened earlier but / for collusion with insurers

As early as 1835, Zachariah Allen, owner of a cotton mill in Rhode Island, revolted against the collusion between insurance companies and factory owners, which facilitated the maintenance of dangerous conditions: it was cheaper to pay premiums even exorbitant than putting security measures in place. Through Allen’s efforts, including risk sharing among plant owners, new practices have been implemented:

[T]The standard New England cotton mill was equipped with automatic sprinklers, fire screens and fire doors (to limit fires to one section of the mill and create safe areas for employees) [and] death by fire was no longer a serious risk to the life of the factory…. In Philadelphia in 1911, fireproof enclosed staircases replaced exposed iron fire escapes in commercial buildings. [1]

So why wasn’t this the practice in New York?

The right fire at the right time was good for business.

The manufacture of shirts was extremely lucrative, but depended on the whims of the Parisian fashion police. A “united” year was in vogue; the following year, it was “chic”. This meant tons of unused merchandise, which reduced the bottom line.

The 11,000 owners of textile factories in New York therefore had other priorities than safety: to process their unsold stocks and recover their losses. A 1913 article in Necklace’s Arthur McFarlane’s magazine profiled “the large and successful commercial arson industry. He reported, for example, that in 1910 Paris decreed that women’s dresses should be simple. “Soon there were weekly fires in New York’s braid and embroidery factories.” (1) These losses were covered or over-covered by insurance: higher premiums were always cheaper than safer buildings. And safer buildings also meant lower rates and commissions for politically connected insurance brokers, who made money not by reducing risk but by selling more and bigger policies.

Blanck and Harris seem to have been the main beneficiaries of the program. With a history of fires in their factories, they prepared for the fires “not with security measures…but by buying bigger and bigger fire insurance policies.” They had coverage of around $200,000, recovering far more in property damage claims than in worker deaths. With such motivation, installing sprinkler systems would have been counterproductive, and requiring fire drills to admit a bad conscience.

After the fire, “the two men eventually collected a large portion of the insurance money – $60,000 more than what the fire had cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit of the fire of $400.00 per victim.

Eventually, they reached a settlement with the families of the victims, agreeing to pay one week’s wages for each worker. But stories of poor families who had depended on the meager earnings of Triangle workers, with little or no compensation, slowly spread.

Suddenly workers’ compensation becomes constitutional

In 1914, a new workers’ compensation law came into effect in New York. (Workers’ compensation removes the need for employer negligence in exchange for a lower, but still realistic scheduled payment). This Act was also challenged on the same grounds as the previous one: that it violated due process and overturned the common law, rendering it unconstitutional under 14and Amendment. It wasn’t until three years later that the case reached the United States Supreme Court. And in 1917, the workers’ compensation laws were finally ruled constitutional. [2]

It seems like it always takes a tragedy to enact life-saving laws – and politics constantly creeps into the mix.

[1] Triangle – The fire that changed America David von Drehle [2] Case of New York Central Railroad v. White243 US 188 (1917) and Southern Pacific Co. v. Jensen Case244 US 205 (1917) stunning Ives v. South Buffalo Railway case201 NY 271 (1911)

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