Fashion, faith, and $75: the disaster that changed the US forever

How much is an illiterate immigrant woman worth?

$75USD. Fresh, newly printed in a white envelope with corners so sharp they cut at your finger tips. You tear it open and stare down into the faces of long dead men staring out at you from green ink. Two thousand, one hundred, and sixty-five dollars and sixty one cents in 2021. The cost of a smart new frock worn by the society beauties down fifth avenue, or perhaps some evening classes for your soliciting husband. Of course, you’ll ask yourself on the steps of the court, whether this was what the charred corpse of your dead sister was worth to this brave new world.

It’s hard to put into words what awaited those who passed the Asch building on that Friday afternoon in late March, 1911. The first thing you’d see, of course, was the foul billowing black smoke that flooded through Greene Street and filled the air with the choking inhalation of burning cloth and charred flesh. Then you’d hear it. Over the clang of the fire engine bells and the cries of the crowds below, the desperate roaring pleas of hundreds of women for their lives in the inferno above. Snippets of prayers, promises to the Madonna and the saints intermixed with the sobering a capella calls to Adonai. Italian and Polish poured from the 8th and 9th floors, intermixed with Yiddish, Russian, and the rough gasps of burnt lungs. Then the sound of fists against glass, as the women desperately fought to get away from the unbearable heat and licking flames. The sound of their bodies hitting the concrete below would haunt the nightmares of the watchers for a century to come. Thud. Thud. Thud. The flail of arms and petticoats before that final, unforgiving crunch of bone and smatter of muscle. In just twenty minutes, the screaming had stopped.

Coffins would line the street before the flames had finished blackening the broken windows of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The ladders didn’t reach the upper floors of the Asch building, leaving the firefighters helpless below as the women leapt to their deaths, more out of a reflex to the hellish temperatures than a desire to die. It would be a century before New York would ever see such an utter massacre of civilian life.

But this wasn’t a bomb. This wasn’t some cult of desperate young men hoping for infamy in world where their faith was being rendered pointless. This wasn’t a hijacked plane, an embittered arsonist, or some cruel act of a murderous dictator. This was, put simply, a murder of greed.

$3 dollars an hour and a locked door

In a world where we are swiftly moving towards public pressure for a $15 an hour wage, $3 an hour- and that is adjusted to modern figures from the actual 1911 figure of $7 a week- sounds harrowing. And that is before I tell you that these girls were working 52 hour weeks (ten hours a day with a day off on Sunday) in a sweatshop routinely lit by failing lights in unbearable heat and cold. Many would go blind or develop crippling arthritis working in these Manhattan sweatshops, constantly under the threat of immediate dismissal without notice if they failed to meet their quota for items made in a day. When you consider that a modern, skilled seamstress would take 4–6 hours to make 5 shirts, with modern equipment, the idea of making 24 shirts in just 10 seems unbelievably cruel. So who was doing this work? And why did they tolerate it?

Well, the people doing this work were the bottom of the social heap, for one. They were desperate. Crammed into horrific lodging houses and slums for rent that cost them as much as 90% of their weekly earnings, they took whatever work they could get. Unable to read and write in most instances, and certainly not speaking English with a high degree of fluency, many turned to factory and sweatshop work to feed their families. In fact, astonishingly, a job at the Triangle Waist Factory was considered positively luxurious next to some of the labour available for “women of their class”. Alternatives included working 20 hour days as a ‘maid of all work’ for the middle classes (scrubbing, cleaning, and carrying buckets of coal and water from 4am to midnight) prostitution (in an environment where active syphilis and gonorrhoea infections accounted for as many as 1 in 10 clients) and the dreaded ‘peddling’, or standing out in the freezing snows and gales begging passersby to buy matches, pamphlets, coal wrapped in paper, or whatever else could be found and sold. Many saw these women as ‘fortunate’ and ‘modern’ for having an income that did not rely on the predatory interest of “mashers” (rich men) or back-breaking work.

Well, for three dollars an hour, you could at least keep a roof over your head, bread in your mouth, and hope for a husband someday who could flee out west with you to a farm under the blue prairie sky. So many engagement rings were found on the charred fingers of the victims that one was forced to reflect on how close those women were to escaping the harrowing poverty of the new Americans. Maybe, if the fire had been just a few days later, the women would have left that building laughing for the last time, pinning their hats to their hair as they blew kisses to the faces they’d have never seen again. Instead, they had died suffocating in the dark hot carcass of the Asch building, as the world looked on, helpless.

So why did they die? The answer is unpleasantly simple.

The doors were locked.

Guilt learnt, lessons lost

The delightful owners of the Triangle Waist Company had an interesting policy in getting the most out of their working girls. The doors would be locked and bolted when they arrived, meaning that the only way out was either to go up on the roof, or down one single elevator which had to be manned by an expert. The girls had to have their purses checked when they left, too, to make sure they weren’t stealing buttons or cloth. This was, of course, disastrous.

When the fire started in a barrel of discarded fabrics, it would have still been relatively easy to have instructed the 500 or so women to leave immediately if the doors had been open. Anyone who knows even basic fire safety knows that a workshop filled with cloth and fabric has the capacity to become a large scale fire hazard in a matter of minutes, and as such, immediate exit was something of a given. In the confusion, the doors were left shut, and the women began to panic. There was no plan for dealing with a fire, unbelievably: the women on the floors above were not notified, apart from a quick phone call to the receptionist, and no loudspeaker was used to alert the workers. The women ran to the elevator, crushing eachother in the stampede, as the fire tore over the work space. Shirts hanging overhead and bolts of fabric lining the walls created an inferno in a matter of minutes. The women who did make it to the fire escape after the door was unlocked had it buckle under their weight, being constructed to handle the weight of 50 women and not 500. As the heat grew more intense, many of the women threw themselves down the elevator shaft (some ten floors) in the hope of escape. In the crush of the stairwell, and the confusion, many died of suffocation and smoke inhalation. Those who did not manage to escape the workspace jumped to their deaths, scores falling to the concrete. In all, 146 people would die in just 20 minutes. All for the sake of a locked door.

After the blaze, America woke up to the sad preventative nature of the disaster. Impossibly, it wasn’t a crime to lock your workers in. It was bad form, yes, but the owners got off on the technicality that it wasn’t a criminal act to do so. Indeed, it was common practice. The outrage would force corporate America to reform working conditions across the states, with fire wardens and compulsory health and safety checks being issued in all major cities. One factory forced it’s workers to crawl through a hatch to exit in the case of a fire, with the owner being reprimanded and forced to climb through it himself to reflect on his cruelty. If it hadn’t been for the disaster, perhaps these measures would have taken decades to come into effect. But the enormous, unconcealed scale of the disaster left the whole east coast reeling. Barely a working class family in the city did not know or have someone who had been hurt or injured in the fire. Women wandered dazed back home covered in soot and blood, unable to speak and mouths lined with ash. The owners were forced to pay just $75 per worker lost in the incident to their families, despite receiving $60,000 from the insurance company, or $400 per victim. Seventy five dollars for a human being, a human life, a living, loving human being.

I’d like to think they felt terrible. I’d like to think they were haunted by the faces of the women and children screaming for their lives. I’d like to think they woke up in the dark terrified of the thick choking smoke of burning bodies. I’d like to think they spent the rest of their lives begging for forgiveness from the thousands of people they had left destitute with grief.

But unfortunately, history tells a different tale.

Just two years later, the owner was in the newspapers again. Now, it was illegal to make it impossible for your workers to leave in a fire. His locking of the doors and placing of heavy extra machines over another exit in an attempt to squeeze in more workers in his new factory was now, thankfully, a criminal offence.

He was fined the minimum amount, of just $20.

25 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk