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‘In America, They Don’t Let You Burn’: The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Anna Gullo, a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, believed, “In America, they don’t let you burn.” But the tragic events of March 25, 1911 proved her wrong. So did the failure to prosecute Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the factory owners who locked the factory doors to protect their profits rather than their workers. Even though fire safety regulations were implemented in New York City as early as 1860, it wasn’t until 1913 that New York City would truly uphold Anna Gullo’s beliefs, thanks to the tireless efforts of Frances Perkins following the devastating fire.

Working with Tammany Hall, Perkins helped create new labor laws requiring fire safety protections, and new requirements for fire escapes on factory buildings. Today you can still see the effects of this law in our neighborhoods.  

Firefighters extinguish the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village.

On February 2, 1860, a fire broke out in a tenement on what is now Lafayette Street; the wooden staircase burned, and with no other forms of egress, the women and children were forced to wait inside the burning building hoping for firefighters to come to save them. However, ten women and children died because the firefighters’ ladders could not reach the fourth floor. In April of 1860, a law was passed requiring a home built for eight or more families to have fireproof stairs or balconies. In 1867, the tenement house act required fire escapes on all tenements — both existing and planned new builds. The law was amended several times starting in 1871 to extend beyond tenements: first to large factories, and then every hotel, boarding house, office building, and factory in which people worked above the first floor. Surprisingly, people did not favor these fire escapes, believing they offered little protection and reminded people of tragedy. In 1899, The New York Times called the bill for fire escapes on a hotel a “silly proposal” and said, “A burning tinder box is no safer for being in a closed cage of red-hot ladders.”

Example of a fire escape design meeting the requirements of the 1901 specifications

On March 25, 1911, New York City saw how vital properly constructed fire escapes are. With only one fire escape, which quickly crumbled under the weight of the women seeking to safety from the fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the building’s egress proved insufficient. The lack of egress, coupled with the owner’s horrendous practice of locking the door, ultimately led to the death of 146 women and men. In October of 1911, New York City passed the Sullivan-Hoey Act, which required factory owners to install sprinkler systems and established The New York City Fire Prevention Bureau. And in 1912, Frances Perkins, with the power of Tammany Hall and Theodore Roosevelt, was at the helm of the Committee on Safety in the City of New York, where she fought for more protections.

Wrought Iron fire escape design

With the Committee, Perkins pushed for a law to create design requirements for fire escapes. The law required fire escapes constructed after October 1, 1913 to be made of wrought iron or steel. It also stated the windows opening to the fire escape had to be fireproof, and the balconies or stairs had to hold up to 90lbs per square foot. The Committee argued that if the fire escapes had been adequately constructed as the law now required, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire would not have been as devastating. 

This law, which undoubtedly went on to save many lives of factory workers in the city, created ironwork that still adorns many buildings in our neighborhoods today. Notably, we can see these additions in the area south of Union Square, where many garment factories were located. The iron stairs frame lofts designed by great architects such as Albert Wagner, Louis Korn, and Buchman & Fox. 

55 Fifth Avenue, 1913, Hudson Hawley Rendering

More impacts of this fire included better protections for workers’ rights, including better pay and a shorter workweek. Buildings in New York City were also increasingly outfitted with fire safety measures, and new builds were constructed with fire safety in mind and advertised as such. No. 55 Fifth Avenue, constructed in 1912, advertised itself as “fireproof and equipped with a modern sprinkler system.” It rented quickly, and every alteration had extensive fireproofing measures.

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