Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

John Sloan, cover for the November 1913 issue of The Masses

Today is the 102nd anniversary–if that is the correct word–for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Many of you are probably familiar with John Sloan’s famous illustration condemning the profit-seeking greed that led to the tragedy. Sloan’s image is unflinching, with its depiction of the dead worker, whose body is still aflame. The women had no route of escape — they could either choose to die in the factory or jump from the burning building.

Sloan was also a sensitive chronicler of working-class life in New York, as his 1913 cover for The Masses demonstrates.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy is often remembered as a catalyst for labor rights and workplace safety. The tragedy did help push through legal reforms to safeguard workers’ health and safety by laying bare the tragic costs of inaction.

These poor and dangerous working conditions were well known to workers, who had been fighting for years, before the Triangle fire, for better conditions and legal reforms that would hold owners and employers accountable. It wasn’t an easy path. Women’s labor was poorly valued. A photo illustration, published in the Dec. 1911 issue of The Masses ( 8 months after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire), described women as “the cheapest commodity on the market.”

Illustration, The Masses, December 1911

Throughout this period, workers sought to improve their wages and working conditions through unions and industrial actions.

Workers striking in New York, 1910

And while public outrage regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy was swift, it did not yield immediate action. For a long time after, women continued to push for better wages and working conditions, legal reforms–and for suffrage. These were large movements, as demonstrated by the scale of “The Women’s Parade” (also known as the Great Suffrage Parade) held in 1913, 2 years after the fire.

Further Reading:

Most of the images in this post come from Linda Arbaugh Kinnahan’s 2022 article, “Portraits of Working Women: Lola Ridge’s “The Ghetto” and the Visual Record” Humanities 11, no. 5: 117.

For contemporary news coverage, photographs, and other primary sources:

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