The Original “No Exit” : The Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire

February 10th, 2005 by

In the rush of events, we may succomb to the notion that we are constantly seeing things for the first time. In two previous blogs, we mentioned employers who locked exits to prevent theft after hours, leaving cleaning and maintenance crews vulnerable to disaster. Well, the most famous incident of locked exits occurred on March 25, 1911: the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in New York City that killed 146 workers, mostly women. The fire led directly to an unlikely alliance between the reform movement and Tammany Hall and became a catalyst for a paradigm shift in safety standards.
We heartily recommend David Von Drehle’s riveting account of the disaster, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. The paperback version was released recently and is available at your local bookseller or at The book provides a compelling social history of the time. Von Drehle points out how the garment industry had changed from a home-based, free-lance business to huge factory floors in high rise buildings, with row after row of sewing machines. (The ladders of fire trucks were not tall enough to reach the workers nine stories up.) The classic turn-of-the-century “sweat shop” was not just hot — it was the pace of work that caused the sweat. Because the owners feared theft of the popular shirt waists, they locked the doors. Or did they? That became the heart of the criminal trial that followed the disaster.
The story of the criminal trial may be the most intriguing part of the history. Begin with a trial judge who in a prior life had been a Tammany housing commissioner, fired after 20 people died in a tenement fire. His sympathies were clearly with the owners of the company. Then add a brilliant lawyer for the defense, Max Steuer, whose dazzling cross-examinations raised doubts that the doors had been locked (even though it became clear in retrospect that they had). Steuer achieved a legal triple play: his clients were acquitted of criminal negligence charges, they collected the maximum from their insurance companies and they successfully fought off all civil suits. He was the original “dream team” of one.
We are left with shadows of the many victims: mostly immigrants from eastern Europe and Italy. Not satisfied with their anonymous deaths, Von Drehle names as many of them as he can and provides a brief profile of their impoverished lives. At first, over 90 years after the event, I thought this was an exercise in futility. On second thought, I applaud Von Drehle for not allowing these victims of workplace neglect to disappear without a trace.