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How a tragedy transformed protections for American workers

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire—which killed 146 garment workers—shocked the public and galvanized the labor movement.

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Fire hoses spray the upper floors of the Asch Building—headquarters to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company—during the 1911 fire in New York City that shocked the U.S. into developing new worker safety standards.

Smoke poured out of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. Then came the bodies. Young women—mostly immigrants, all poor sweatshop workers—leapt to their deaths in a desperate bid to escape the flames that raced through the Triangle Waist Company’s factory.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire claimed the lives of 146 garment workers who were trapped in an unsafe building during the preventable blaze. The tragedy shocked the public and inspired Progressive movement activists to push for new workplace safety laws in New York State—which ultimately became the model for stronger regulations across the country.

The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, Russian Jewish immigrants known as the “Shirtwaist Kings.” They founded the Triangle Waist Company in 1900, producing ready-to-wear shirtwaists, tailored, button-down blouses that were the era’s most popular women's garments. Their success skyrocketed them into luxurious lifestyles.

Their employees’ lives stood in stark contrast. Most garment workers barely earned enough to subsist. The factory employed mostly young women, some as young as 14; most were immigrants, and all were expectedto work grueling, 13-hour days. Workers were goaded by supervisors who discouraged bathroom and lunch breaks and punished them for talking, singing, or pausing in their monotonous work.

Though the Triangle factory was consideredmodern—particularly compared to the sweatshops of its day—its workers were subject to horrendous working conditions. Fabric scraps littered the floors of the factory’s overcrowded rooms. The building only had a single, flimsy fire escape, leading to an internal courtyard, and...

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