On March 25, 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burns down. 145 workers were killed in a place that probably defined the word sweatshop. Only one out of the four elevators were working, one staircase opening inward only, and the other one was locked to prevent theft. The fire escapes? They were shoddily constructed and collapsed under the weight of the women as they tried to escape. Even the hose that a manager tried to use was rusted enough not to function at all. Women attempted to leave by jumping out of windows (the firefighters’ ladders only reached to floor 7 while the workers were on the 9th). Eventually the elevator broke, but women jumped down the shafts anyway to escape the fire. Most of the deaths occurred as women were fleeing, not because of the fire itself.
This tragedy led to stricter fire codes, and a march of 80,000 people in support of the common laborer. The owners were placed on trial, but were found innocent of all charges. Cornell University has created an amazing online exhibition of the fire. There’s a map of the ninth floor, a timeline of events, a list of witness testimony, anything you can think of. You can check out our catalog for books containing this fire and women workers’ rights.