Frances Perkins: The Woman Behind the New Deal

Triangle Fire > Triangle Fire

The Triangle Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, was the worst factory fire ever in New York City. Within 15 minutes, 146 workers, most of them young women, perished, almost 50 jumping to their deaths from the eighth and ninth floors of the building at the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street. Perkins was across Washington Square Park at the time and ran over when she heard the alarms. She later remembered, “People who had their clothes afire would jump. It was a most horrid spectacle…There was no place to go.”

A week later at a rally sponsored by the Consumers’ League at the Metropolitan Opera House, 3500 people heard Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the Shirtwaist Makers Union, give a powerful speech in which she said, “The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.” Schneiderman couldn’t have been more right. The Triangle’s owners were not found liable and collected $65,000 in insurance money for property damage. Three years later the building owner paid only $75 to each of a small number of families who lost a loved one.

Within a few months of the fire, former President Theodore Roosevelt recommended Perkins as executive director of the Committee on Safety, which would work for improvements in workplace safety. As a result of the Committee’s work, New York State established a Factory Investigating Commission with Senator Robert F. Wagner as chairman, Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith as vice-chairman, and, later, Perkins as its executive secretary. The Commission investigated working conditions in the broadest sense and was responsible for a great deal of substantive legislation to protect workers.


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