John Sloan (1871-1951)|The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 1911|Illustration published in The Call New York v. 4 no. 86 (Monday, March 27, 1911): front page and reprinted in Coming Nation no. 31, new series (April 15, 1911)|Ink, Chinese white, and crayon on illustration board|Delaware Art Museum, gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1991-98

March 25, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the fire that killed 146 workers of the Triangle Waist Company located at 23-29 Washington Place  and Greene Street (at the northern corner of Washington Square East) in New York City. Triangle occupied the top three floors of the ten-story building. The Triangle Waist Company was a garment factory that made women’s shirtwaist blouses—the style combined tight waists, some button placket and collar decoration, with full puffy sleeves. By 1911, the Triangle Waist Company was one of the largest blouse makers in New York City with approximately 500 employees.

Fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building that housed the Triangle Waist Company late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911. Around 4:30 PM, company workers were gathering their belongings and beginning to head home from work. It is believed that the fire began in one of the fabric scrap bins. Workers attempted to put it out by tossing pails of water on the blaze, but it quickly grew out of control due to the flammability of much of what was in the room—cotton, fabric and scraps, tissue paper patters, and wooden work tables. Then they tried to use the fire hoses available on each floor in a last ditch effort to put our the fire only to have no water appear when the hose valve was turned on.

Workers lost their lives not only from the fire, but also because of inadequate emergency procedures and building codes. Emergency exit doors had been blocked from the outside by the management. Prior to the fire, the owners locked the exit doors claiming that the workers stole materials.*  Those that were able to exit via fire doors, found that the metal stairs bent under the weight of factory workers attempting to flee the fire. Others used the buildings elevators, but it wasn’t long before the fire reached the elevator shafts. The Fire Department’s ladders were only tall enough to reach to the sixth floor, leaving people trapped on the upper floors of the ten-story building.  Fire hoses were unable to provide enough pressure for the water to have much of an affect on the blaze. Some of the victims chose to jump to their deaths rather than wait to be caught by the conflagration.

The illustrator and painter John Sloan noted the fire and his illustration idea in his diary the day after the fire.

March 26

After breakfast I got at a cartoon idea in re the frightful fire of last evening in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  A black triangle each side marked (“Rents,” “Interest,” “Profit”) death on one side, a fat capitalist on the other and the charred body of a girl in the center.

In his previous evening’s entry Sloan had noted: “Over one hundred and forty shirtwaist makers were burned to death in the Triangle Factory. These girls made the successful strike of the last year! This is a sort of holocaustic celebration in honor of the fact that the Supreme Court of N. Y. yesterday declared the Employers Liability Act of last session unconstitutional. It wasn’t much of an act but it was a move in the right direction!”**

Sloan’s memorial image of the tragedy is composed of a dark triangle with the words, “Rent,” “Interest,” and “Profit” lettered in the thick black line of the form. At each side of the triangle Sloan drew a figure relating to the word. On the right the word “Profit” is accompanied by a tearful fat businessman whose profit has been hit by the fire. At the base, “Interest” is paired with a dead young lady from whose body smoke rises and her right arm is burnt to the skeleton. To the left, “Rent” is attended by a posturing skeleton. On the ground below the dead woman a copy of the Employer’s Liability Bill has a knife labeled “Courts” plunged into its text.

Sloan was not the only illustrator or political cartoonist to concentrate on this tragedy. Focused by newspaper accounts, illustrations like Sloan’s, and public outcry in the wake of this deadly event forced local government reforms to produce better working conditions and workers safety and garment industry unions bargained for better safety and working conditions.

* One of the physical pieces of evidence after the fire was a door handle found on the ninth floor of the building with its bolt in the locked position.

**John Sloan, unpublished diaries, entries respectively from March 26 and 25, 1907. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library, Delaware Art Museum.

See also, David Von Drehle, Triangle: the Fire that Changed America (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003)

March 24, 2011

By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum