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March 25, 1911: End of the American Dream for 146 Triangle employees

Emma Lazarus wrote a poem called “The New Colossus,” which was inscribed on a tablet on the pedestal of The Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Part of the sonnet read: “…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Almost all Americans are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Over the centuries, each year has brought its share of foreign persons seeking freedom and economic opportunity. They came to the United States through the “golden door” looking for a better life.

The dream of a large number of immigrants was not to stay in the United States, but to make enough money to return home and live a more secure life. Between 1870 and 1920, 26 million immigrants came to the United States. Most remained and a majority settled in American cities where they might find work.

Most immigrants were quartered in steerage, the cheapest accommodations in the voyage to America. The immigrants carried their luggage and herded their children off the ship around 8 a.m. They were marched from the ship to the customs wharf and there placed in six or seven long lines.

The immigration officials were running among them, shouting in loud voices, “Come on! Hurry! Move along!” These officials examined their luggage and marked it with chalk. Then the newcomers were quick-marched to a waiting ferryboat to take them to Ellis Island.

In the War of 1812, a fort was built to defend New York City during the war. This fort served as headquarters of the American army in New York. In 1815, after the war had ended, the fort was named Castle Clinton after DeWitt Clinton, New York’s mayor. Its name was changed again to Castle Garden and, in 1855, it was used as an immigration facility.

This New York state-run Castle Garden immigrant receiving center became known for its corruption and taking full advantage of the poorer immigrants. Castle Garden closed its doors in 1890 and the federal government’s Bureau of Immigration took over processing new arrivals.

The U.S. Congress funded the building of a new center to admit immigrants. This complex was established on a tiny island (30 acres) off the New Jersey coast — one mile southwest of Manhattan in Upper New York Bay or 1,300 feet from The Statue of Liberty. Its doors were opened to immigrants in 1892. The island had been named after its late-18th century owner, Samuel Ellis.

Over 12 million persons passed through Ellis Island during its 62 years. In 1907, Ellis Island had its busiest year, seeing about 5,000 persons per day. A record day for Ellis Island officials saw them process 11,750 new arrivals in 1907.

In 1897, the original Ellis Island Immigration Station burned to the ground. A red brick and limestone edifice replaced it. Between 1892 and 1954, 70 percent of all European immigrants came through Ellis Island.

This “Gateway to the New World” closed its doors in November 1954. More than 40 percent of living Americans today are related to ancestors who were processed at Ellis Island. In 1965, Ellis Island became part of The Statue of Liberty National Monument.

For many immigrants, Ellis Island provided them a frightening experience. American government officials (inspectors, doctors, nurses, public officials and clerks) were often insolent and inhumane. The officials said they were placed there to process and record, not to welcome strangers.

Each immigrant was asked 29 questions. Two of the questions were, “Have you any money?” and “Are you a polygamist?”

The testing and examination phases took at least three hours. Only 2 percent of the newcomers were denied entry to our country. Those denied were deemed criminals, anarchists and diseased. They were returned to their places of origin.

Many immigrants’ names were incorrectly registered because of the barrier between the examiners’ English and the newcomers’ native tongues.

Between 1870 and 1900, the number of American women grew by half. Women became very important to the industrial economy.

Wives were not supposed to hold jobs. In 1890, less than 5 percent of all married white women worked outside of their homes. Black married women worked more, making up over 30 percent of their number.

Before marriage, young women usually went to work, at least those below middle class status. The majority of all women who were employed in 1890 were from 16-24 years of age. If much older women worked, it was usually a sign of “something that had gone wrong” — deserting husbands, jobless husbands, incapacitated spouses. Such older women had no choice.

In 1900, women workers fell into three equal classifications. One-third worked as maids or other types of domestic servants. Another third held “female” white collar jobs in teaching, nursing, sales and office work. The final third who worked in industry were called “operatives” – machine tenders and hand workers. These women were heavily concentrated in the garment industry and textile mills.

Just about all of the wage-earning women were young and unmarried. For many, their first job was an escape from family discipline and an opportunity to gain a measure of independence. These young women earned weekly wages below those of the lowest male occupations. It became necessary for the family’s children to join the labor force also.

In 1900, one of every five children below the age of 16 worked. It has been proven that a quarter of a million children below the age of 10 had to work to help their families. Although quite naïve, these “new American” children or women did not deserve the exploitation they had to endure!

By 1910, New York City had become the nation’s center for the garment industry. The city housed 600 shirtwaist and dress factories that employed 30,000 workers, mostly young women. A shirtwaist was a tailored blouse for women that was, in style, similar to a man’s shirt. It was made of sheer cotton.

At one factory, 200 Jewish and Italian immigrant women walked off their jobs in September 1909. The place of business was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Their reasons for walking away seemed justified: the factories were crowded and unclean, every factory posed serious fire hazards, windows and doors in the factories were nailed shut and sunlight rarely penetrated the work area. Workers called their places of work “sweat shops.”

Long hours and low wages were standard in the garment industry. Most employees worked a 56 hour, 6-day week. The factory owner could force the women to work overtime at night or on Sunday without pay.

Wages in the shirtwaist on Sunday were without pay. Wages in the shirtwaist industry were as low as $6 a week. Employers could reduce the $6 for sewing mistakes. They also charged the women “rent” for the machines they used and fees for electricity. Employees could be fined for talking to each other, smoking or singing on the job.

The strike of September 1909 eventually spread to over 500 garment companies and between 10,000 and 20,000 workers walked away. Most of the workers were either Jewish or Italian and ranged in age from 16 to 25. Owners hired hoodlums to beat up strikers on the picket lines.

By Feb. 15, 1910, after much suffering and general declines in worker health, the strike was over.

At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, the workers’ union was not recognized, most of those who went on strike were not rehired, and strike breakers were kept on the payroll. The strikebreakers had enjoyed phonographic music and dancing contests, but these concessions were ended.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company occupied the top three floors of the Asch Building in lower Manhattan. The 10-story building was built in 1901. Such “loft buildings” were supposed to be fireproof, but had wooden frame interiors. At the Triangle Company, nearly 500 people (some men called “contractors”) were on the building’s top three floors.

The Triangle Company never had a fire drill. There were only two narrow staircases leading from the top three floors. All but one of the doors leading to the stairways were bolted to keep employees from stealing fabric. The one fire escape in the building only went to the second floor. There were two small freight elevators, each about five feet square.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, the workers were preparing to go home. A company guard was expected to examine the women’s handbags for stolen fabrics.

A young woman on the eighth floor told Samuel Bernstein, a supervisor, that there was a fire. Bernstein and other men could not put the fire out. He now tried to get the young women to safety. The fire quickly consumed the eighth, ninth and 10th floors. The door next to the freight elevators was locked. Over 150 workers raced each other to the 20-inch passageway that led to the stairway. By 4:45 p.m., escape was impossible.

The firemen used nets to catch the jumping women, but their falls pushed the nets into the pavement. Young women joined hands and plunged to their deaths below. The firemen brought the fire under control 15 minutes after their arrival.

The mortality statistics were staggering: 46 workers jumped to their deaths, the charred remains of 100 were found inside the building and seven bodies were never identified. Most of the dead were Jewish. Fourteen engagement rings were found on one floor.

On April 15, 1911, a symbolic mass funeral was held. Over 100,000 people marched in the rain for five hours.

Who was to blame? People pointed to New York City’s fire insurance companies and company owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck.

The judge told the jury that if the owners did not know about the locked ninth floor door, the jury must acquit them. The jury said “not guilty.”

Pauline Newman, a former employee, believed the fire was planned for the insurance money. She said the owners were fined $75 – a 51 cent fine for each Triangle fatality!

Bob Leith is a retired history professor for Ohio University Southern and the University of Rio Grande.