This week TUC Librarian Jeff Howarth has been in New York for the annual conference of the International Association of Labour History Institutions (IALHI). The conference is being held on the campus of New York University and one of the university’s buildings, now called the Brown Building, was formerly the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in America’s history.
In 1911 the building was known as the Asch Building and its 8th, 9th and 10th floors were occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. The company made women’s blouses, known as “shirt-waists”.
On March 25th 1911 a fire broke out in the factory, causing the deaths of 146 garment workers. Many of the workers were Jewish and Italian immigrants and the deaths included 123 women and 23 men, including two 14 year old girls. It emerged that the exits to the building had been locked by the company owners – a common practice at the time to stop workers taking unauthorised breaks. The lack of exits significantly increased the death toll as many died of smoke inhalation and others jumped out of windows in an attempt to avoid the flames.
The aftermath of the fire led to legislation being passed that increased safety standards and working conditions in factories. It also prompted the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. A Committee on Public Safety, and later the American Society of Safety Engineers, were founded in New York in response to the fire.