The Horrific Factory Fire That Killed Jewish Immigrants and Forced the Garment Industry to Alter Its Practices

The Last Ships from Hamburg tells the story of how the ancestors of most American Jews arrived in this country. Between 1881 and 1914, over two million Jews came to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, part of the largest human migration in human history. Most of them came from the Russian Empire, where antisemitism was encouraged by the absolutist czarist regime as a means to deflect political attention away from its own deep-seated problems. No Jew, no matter how established, was safe from marauding Cossack horsemen or violent populist pogroms.

The passage to American was made possible by three powerful and often conflicting individuals.  The first was Albert Ballin, the German-Jewish shipping mogul whose Hamburg-America Line created a privatized immigration assembly line that allowed Russian Jews to cross the German border and take his ships to America.

The second was Jacob Schiff, one of America’s leading investment bankers, who fervently believed America was the new promised land for the Jewish people. He spent over half his fortune on Jewish causes, especially ones that assisted Russian Jewish arrivals. The third was J.P. Morgan, an avowed anti-Semite who nonetheless tried to buy up all the transatlantic shipping lines and merge them into a trust that derived most of its profits from the immigrant trade.  Thanks largely to Albert Ballin, this effort proved to be one of Morgan’s only failures.

Life in the “Promised Land” was not easy for these new arrivals.  There were no pogroms or Cossacks, and but there were myriad other challenges. The Lower East Side, the heart of Jewish immigrant New York, was the most densely populated urban area on earth, with 1,100 residents per square acre in 1900.  Large families were crammed into two-room apartments with little to no natural light and fresh air and were often forced to take in boarders to pay the rent.

To make money, Jewish immigrants set up small manufacturing operations either in their apartments or in warehouses. Some made cigars or leather goods, but most were in the garment trade, or the shmata business in Yiddish. Men, women, and children worked eighteen hours a day churning out piecework for major department stores. These sweatshops were lorded over by abusive foremen and tight-fisted owners, many of whom were recent immigrants themselves. It was pure, unregulated capitalism at its most cutthroat and cruel.

All of this came to a head in the worst industrial accident in New York’s history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, brought the plight of these immigrant workers to light across all levels of society.  It moved even the daughters of some of New York’s richest and most powerful men to join protestors on the picket lines. This excerpt from The Last Ships from Hamburg tells the story of this chilling and transformative tragedy.


Man, you are no match,
For the cold ocean’s power.
It is a wet and deep grave…. Shed tears for all the lives lost. And for her noble courage,
All should honor and remember, The name of Ida Straus.

–Solomon  Shmulewitz,  “The  Titanic’s Destruction,  The  Watery  Grave”  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located on the top three floors of a ten-story building near Washington Square, which some fifty years earlier was part of the most fashionable residential neighborhood in New York. And it was known in literary circles as the setting for some of Henry James’s genteel novels of manners. But by 1911, the rich had moved farther north to upper Fifth Avenue. Their townhomes were turned into tenements for the working poor, or demolished and replaced with factories housing light industry.

Triangle’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were Russian Jewish immigrants. They rose from humble tailors to successful entrepreneurs. They, too, had moved farther north. Both lived in grand townhouses on the Upper West Side, employed several servants, and were driven to work in chauffeured cars. Their company employed five hundred or so workers, mostly teenage Italian and Jewish girls, who worked ten to twelve hours a day hunched over sewing machines, churning out hundreds of shirtwaists, the upper portion of a woman’s blouse.

The raw shirtwaists, made of cotton or linen fabric, were then dispatched to other shops, where embroidery, rhinestones, or other decorations would be added. The finished products would then be displayed at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and other department stores that catered to rich and middle-class women. The entire women’s garment industry employed about thirty thousand learners (apprentices), operators, cutters, patternmakers, and supervisors, and generated about $50 million in annual revenue.

The young women who labored at Triangle were supporting not just themselves but also their families back in the tenements of the Lower East Side. They earned between seven and twelve dollars a week, the modern-day equivalent of between $191 and $327. Many of the women also set aside a portion of their meager wages to help relatives back home purchase steamship tickets, often on a HAPAG vessel.

Two years earlier, the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had walked off the job in protest of the terrible working conditions, which included verbal abuse and sexual harassment from male supervisors.

Harris and Blanck believed their wages were fair enough. After all, they, too, had come up the hard way and had resisted all attempts by the workers to join the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. To them, profit margins were just too thin to pay more, or to comply with proposed regulations such as fire exits, shorter workdays, and adequate ventilation.

The women disagreed. Two years earlier, the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company had walked off the job in protest of the terrible working conditions, which included verbal abuse and sexual harassment from male supervisors. At a meeting of activists at Cooper Union in November 1909, the largely male labor leadership, including AFL president Samuel Gompers, dithered about whether or not to call a general strike.

Frustrated, the twenty-three-year-old socialist Clara Lemlich demanded to speak. She and her family had fled the Kishinev pogroms six years earlier and emigrated to New York. Clara quickly got a job in a garment factory, like countless young Jewish women. Yet she wasn’t willing to endure the long hours, dehumanizing work, and dangerous working conditions just to bring home money to help her family pay tenement rent.

She wanted to improve the lot of all workers. She dreamed of a day when the garment workers would take matters into their own hands, perhaps influenced by the novels of Tolstoy and Gorky, which she secretly read against the wishes of her religious, Yiddish-speaking parents.

The young firebrand quickly earned a reputation as a troublemaker. A few months before the meeting at Cooper Union, hired thugs had beaten Clara and other picketers. Despite the agony of several broken ribs, she summoned the strength to get up to the podium, where she shouted in Yiddish:

I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.

The crowd rose cheering, and everyone in the hall agreed to a general strike. In all, twenty thousand garment workers walked off their jobs. As winter fell upon New York, the women marched in picket lines and held up signs in Yiddish, Italian, and English demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

Photographs of the brave women strikers electrified the city. But the business establishment, including J. P. Morgan, brushed off their demands as mere socialist troublemaking. Jacob Schiff, who had given so much of his fortune to the Educational Alliance and the Henry Street Settlement House, from which many of these women must have benefited, also appears to have said nothing about the strike. Although his fortune came from financing railroads, he supported labor unions in principle.

“I believe the proper organization of employees for their own benefit,” he declared before Congress, “which is the benefit of the State, ought to be encouraged in every way.” Yet if Schiff did support the “Uprising of the 20,000,” it was in no way public.

However, Anne Morgan, J. P. Morgan’s daughter, was deeply moved by what was happening. She and several other wealthy suffragettes donated to the strikers’ support fund and even joined them on the picket lines, dressed in mink coats and feathered hats. By the winter of 1910, the society women withdrew their support of the socialist-backed strike, and the shirtwaist makers, exhausted and out of money, went back to their sewing machines, shivering in the unheated lofts and surrounded by months’ worth of fabric scraps.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the manufacturers that refused to grant any of the protesters’ demands for better working conditions. In fact, Harris and Blanck had hired goons to terrorize the striking women into submission.

In the late afternoon of March 25, 1911, the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were rushing to fill their quotas for the day before heading home. Sometime around 4:40 p.m., smoke began billowing from a pile of fabric scraps on the eighth floor. Within minutes, flames spread to the rest of the floor. Dozens of terrified workers swarmed for the exits, but managers had locked the doors from the outside to make sure no one left early or took a cigarette break. Soon, the fire spread to the upper two floors of the building.

Some of the women managed to escape the inferno using a rickety fire escape, but it soon gave way, crashing to the street below. Others were helped into an adjoining building by students from New York University. By 5:00 p.m., dozens of people were still trapped on the upper floors. The fire department arrived within minutes, but its ladders couldn’t get high enough to reach the fire. The best it could do was train its hoses upward onto the building.

From the street below, observers saw figures standing on the windowsills, flames and smoke billowing behind them. They had two choices: burn or jump. In all, a hundred and twenty-three women and twenty-three men perished in the tragedy. Some lay dead in the streets; others were at their sewing ma- chines or pressed up against the locked exits.

It was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that finally led to tighter government regulation of the garment industry.

A jury acquitted Max Blanck and Isaac Harris on state charges of manslaughter, but their reputations were permanently ruined. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that finally led to tighter government regulation of the garment industry. The dead would also become martyrs of the Jewish labor movement.

At the public memorial for the victims, which took place at the packed and incongruously splendid Metropolitan Opera House, ILGWU leader Rose Schneiderman compared the machinery of American capitalism to that of the Spanish Inquisition:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are to- day; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

Within a year, hundreds more immigrants would become martyrs to the American Dream, not by fire in the midst of the city, but by ice in the midst of the ocean.

And the public would place the blame on Anne Morgan’s father.


Adapted from The Last Ships from Hamburg © 2023 by Steven Ujifusa, with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top