From the Ashes
Saturday, March 25, 1911, was a day of unspeakable tragedy in the history of America. The peace of the halcyon spring afternoon in the area of New York's Washington Square was broken by the screaming sirens of fire engines, and witnesses looked on in horror as the top three floors of a nearby ten-story building were engulfed in flames. The building housed the Triangle Waist Company, a manufacturer of women's blouses. With no other way of escaping the conflagration, scores of employees leaped from the windows, their clothes and hair ablaze. Within minutes, 146 workers died. The victims were almost all young women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-three, and most were recent immigrants, Italians and Russian Jews. The Triangle Fire was more than an isolated tragedy on the landscape of history; it was "part of a larger story woven into the fabric of American life." Consideration of that story is critical in understanding the significance of the incident and its effect on American life today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, over twenty million immigrants arrived in the United States from Europe. Driven from their homelands by a variety of conditions, including natural disasters, poverty, war, and persecution, they were drawn to the new land in hopes of a better life. By the start of the twentieth century, industrialization had made the United States a world power. A small number of immigrants, including such illustrious personages as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie, were rewarded for their ingenuity and hard work with unimaginable wealth and success; however, life for most Americans during this time was a harsh struggle for existence. People, native born and immigrant alike, toiled long hours for little pay, often in dangerous and squalid conditions. It was often commonplace for workers to be injured or even killed on the job, and there were no laws or safety nets to protect them.
The Triangle Fire brought this reality to the forefront of American consciousness in a way no other tragedy had ever done, raising profound questions about the nature of both labor and social progress. Individuals, largely unrecognized in subsequent history books, rose up to lead a moral crusade to address these difficult issues. One of these notable leaders was Frances Perkins. A social worker and the leader of an organization devoted to improving working conditions in factories, she personally witnessed the fire and was so shaken by what she had seen that she devoted the rest of her life to making sure such a horror could never happen again. In the 1930s, she became the first woman to hold a cabinet position, serving as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.