A Tragic Chapter in Italian Immigrant History: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On this day in 1911, one of the deadliest workplace disasters in New York City’s history occurred in Greenwich Village known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The Triangle Waist Company was owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris who employed about 500 workers at the factory, many of which were young Jewish and Italian immigrant women. These immigrants would work every day for 12 hours, only earning about $15 per week while being subjected to some of the poorest working conditions imaginable. Forced into cramped lines of sewing machines, these women were given very few breaks and did not even have access to a bathroom during a work day at the sweatshop.

The most unforgivable of these conditions, which would ultimately lead to the deaths of 146 workers mostly between the ages of 14 and 23, were related to fire prevention. Since breaks during the workday were few and far between, it was common at the time for factories such as this to lock the exits to the building in order to deter unauthorized breaks while also aiming to reduce stolen goods. Furthermore, Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems since the two men had previously used arson as a way to collect large payouts from fire insurance policies they had purchased. Not only did the Triangle factory catch on fire twice in 1902, but another factory owned by the men called the Diamond Waist Company factory had also been torched twice in 1907 and 1910.

Since the factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch building, there was no way for the workers to escape when an unextinguished match or cigarette butt caused some clothing scraps to burst into flames. The only hose that could have controlled its burn was rotted, while all other exits such as elevators and the fire escape were inaccessible. As a result, the workers had no choice but to either jump 90 feet onto the street or face the flames, leading to many of the workers dying from smoke inhalation and being burned alive.

The two owners of the factory, who managed to survive the fire by escaping from the building’s roof, were ultimately charged with first and second-degree manslaughter but acquitted just eight months later. However, they were found liable of wrongful death during a civil suit in 1913, forcing them to pay just $75 in compensation to each victim’s family which was a fraction of the $400 per family the men had received from their insurance company.

Yet, this tragic event did spark a movement for improved working conditions and safety measures. In response to the fire, the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention law was passed in October of 1911 which required sprinkler systems to be installed in all New York City factories. The disaster also stimulated the organized labor movement as evidenced by the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which was steadfast in its mission to advocate for the rights of sweatshop workers in the garment industry.

Overall, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire serves as a reminder of what early Italian immigrants had to endure as they attempted to carve out a life for themselves in the United States. While being subject to poor labor conditions, not speaking the language, and having little disposable income, Italians dealt with these challenges head-on and cemented themselves into the American way of life despite facing discrimination and prejudice along the way.

Today, we remember the 146 individuals whose lives could have easily been spared 112 years ago if proper safety precautions had been enacted. Their names can be seen below:

Adler, Lizzie, 24

Altman, Anna, 16

Ardito, Annina, 25

Bassino, Rose, 31

Benanti, Vincenza, 22

Berger, Yetta, 18

Bernstein, Essie, 19

Bernstein, Jacob, 38

Bernstein, Morris, 19

Billota, Vincenza, 16

Binowitz, Abraham, 30

Birman, Gussie, 22

Brenman, Rosie, 23

Brenman, Sarah, 17

Brodsky, Ida, 15

Brodsky, Sarah, 21

Brucks, Ada, 18

Brunetti, Laura, 17

Cammarata, Josephine, 17

Caputo, Francesca, 17

Carlisi, Josephine, 31

Caruso, Albina, 20

Ciminello, Annie, 36

Cirrito, Rosina, 18

Cohen, Anna, 25

Colletti, Annie, 30

Cooper, Sarah, 16

Cordiano , Michelina, 25

Dashefsky, Bessie, 25

Del Castillo, Josie, 21

Dockman, Clara, 19

Donick, Kalman, 24

Driansky, Nettie, 21

Eisenberg, Celia, 17

Evans, Dora, 18

Feibisch, Rebecca, 20

Fichtenholtz, Yetta, 18

Fitze, Daisy Lopez, 26

Floresta, Mary, 26

Florin, Max, 23

Franco, Jenne, 16

Friedman, Rose, 18

Gerjuoy, Diana, 18

Gerstein, Molly, 17

Giannattasio, Catherine, 22

Gitlin, Celia, 17

Goldstein, Esther, 20

Goldstein, Lena, 22

Goldstein, Mary, 18

Goldstein, Yetta, 20

Grasso, Rosie, 16

Greb, Bertha, 25

Grossman, Rachel, 18

Herman, Mary, 40

Hochfeld, Esther, 21

Hollander, Fannie, 18

Horowitz, Pauline, 19

Jukofsky, Ida, 19

Kanowitz, Ida, 18

Kaplan, Tessie, 18

Kessler, Beckie, 19

Klein, Jacob, 23

Koppelman, Beckie, 16

Kula, Bertha, 19

Kupferschmidt, Tillie, 16

Kurtz, Benjamin, 19

L’Abbate, Annie, 16

Lansner, Fannie, 21

Lauletta, Maria Giuseppa, 33

Lederman, Jennie, 21

Lehrer, Max, 18

Lehrer, Sam, 19

Leone, Kate, 14

Leventhal, Mary, 22

Levin, Jennie, 19

Levine, Pauline, 19

Liebowitz, Nettie, 23

Liermark, Rose, 19

Maiale, Bettina, 18

Maiale, Frances, 21

Maltese, Catherine, 39

Maltese, Lucia, 20

Maltese, Rosaria, 14

Manaria, Maria, 27

Mankofsky, Rose, 22

Mehl, Rose, 15

Meyers, Yetta, 19

Midolo, Gaetana, 16

Miller, Annie, 16

Neubauer, Beckie, 19

Nicholas, Annie, 18

Nicolosi, Michelina, 21

Nussbaum, Sadie, 18

Oberstein, Julia, 19

Oringer, Rose, 19

Ostrovsky , Beckie, 20

Pack, Annie, 18

Panno, Provindenza, 43

Pasqualicchio, Antonietta, 16

Pearl, Ida, 20

Pildescu, Jennie, 18

Pinelli, Vincenza, 30

Prato, Emilia, 21

Prestifilippo, Concetta, 22

Reines, Beckie, 18

Rosen (Loeb), Louis, 33

Rosen, Fannie, 21

Rosen, Israel, 17

Rosen, Julia, 35

Rosenbaum, Yetta, 22

Rosenberg, Jennie, 21

Rosenfeld, Gussie, 22

Rothstein, Emma, 22

Rotner, Theodore, 22

Sabasowitz, Sarah, 17

Salemi, Santina, 24

Saracino, Sarafina, 25

Saracino, Teresina, 20

Schiffman, Gussie, 18

Schmidt, Theresa, 32

Schneider, Ethel, 20

Schochet, Violet, 21

Schpunt, Golda, 19

Schwartz, Margaret, 24

Seltzer, Jacob, 33

Shapiro, Rosie, 17

Sklover, Ben, 25

Sorkin, Rose, 18

Starr, Annie, 30

Stein, Jennie, 18

Stellino, Jennie, 16

Stiglitz, Jennie, 22

Taback, Sam, 20

Terranova, Clotilde, 22

Tortorelli, Isabella, 17

Utal, Meyer, 23

Uzzo, Catherine, 22

Velakofsky, Frieda, 20

Viviano, Bessie, 15

Weiner, Rosie, 20

Weintraub, Sarah, 17

Weisner, Tessie, 21

Welfowitz, Dora, 21

Wendroff, Bertha, 18

Wilson, Joseph, 22

Wisotsky, Sonia, 17

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