This weekend will mark the historic anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. The tragedy, one of the most infamous industrial disasters in American history, killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911.
This film, The Crime of Carelessness, was made in 1912 for National Association of Manufacturers by Thomas Edison Studios, warned of the danger of smoking in the workplace (the full film can be viewed here). It also makes reference to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire without mentioning it explicitly. Notably, the film largely shifts responsibility for preventing workplace fires away from owners and managers of industry, and onto the workers.
In reality, most of the deaths at the Triangle factory were preventable, and were the result of neglected safety features, locked exit doors, and poor working conditions. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the building, had a history of suspicious fires at their factories. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory had previously caught fire twice in 1902 and another of their businesses, the Diamond Waist Company factory, burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910.
Despite previously having been suspected of arson for these earlier fires, it was the official position of the city's Fire Marshall that the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was accidental, and likely caused by the ignition of a massive scrap bin of fabric on the 8th floor, which contained months of accumulated cuttings.
Speculation about the cause of the ignition ranged from a discarded match or cigarette to a spark from the engines running the company's sewing machines.What is certain is that, despite the prior incidents of fire, Blanck and Harris had refused to install sprinkler systems or provide other safety measures to protect against fires and other disasters.
The company, known even by the standards of the time for embracing anti-worker and anti-union policies, employed young immigrant women who worked 12 hours a day every day of the week.
While a book-keeper on the 8th floor that saw the fire was able to alert employees on the tenth floor via telephone, there was no alarm system or other means of alerting employees on the 10th floor to the danger. Two long, narrow stairways led to the street level from the factory floor, but neither could accommodate many workers at a time.
Additionally, one was locked from the outside to prevent employee theft (the foreman holding the key fled the fire without unlocking the door) and the other opened inward, rendering it largely inoperable in a crowded space. A single fire escape, poorly constructed, collapsed within minutes of use, spilling escaping workers to the streets below. Those workers on the factory floor that survived largely did so by reaching the building's one operating elevator (the other three were inoperable) or by climbing their way to the roof.
Blanck and Harris were charged with, but acquitted of, first- and second-degree manslaughter, but were found liable in a civil court case that awarded plaintiffs $75 per deceased worker (though this did little to change their approach to the workplace; in 1913, Blanck was arrested and fined $20 for continuing to lock the doors of his factory during working hours).
Ultimately, the tragedy attracted national attention to the dangerous conditions in America's factories, and led to strikes and union organization by other garment workers, as well as the passage of a series of laws and regulations designed to address worker safety. New York state's Factory Investigating Commission, assembled in response to the fire, brought about thirty-eight new laws regulating labor in the state.
Frances Perkins, a witness to the fire, and Robert Wagner, chair of the Commission, later joined President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's cabinet, where they spearheaded New Deal campaigns for worker protections, including the National Labor Relations Act.
This film is part of Hagley Library's collection of National Association of Manufacturers photographs and audiovisual materials (Accession 1973.418). The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was organized in Ohio in 1895 in response to the Panic of 1893, with the goal of recovering from the economic depression, protecting American goods from foreign competition, and to promoting trade expansion. The organization continues today as the largest manufacturing association in the United States.
Originally, NAM was an organization of associations (such as local boards of trade, chambers of commerce, industrial associations, and trade associations), individual manufacturers being only secondary or cooperating members. However, within a couple of years, in order to represent manufacturing interests adequately, membership support would need to be primarily based on individual manufacturers.
NAM soon became an active voice in lobbying federal officials to shape legislative policies favorable to business interests. In the later 1930s and 1940s, NAM worked for the repeal of the National Labor Relations Act, or the Wagner Act, which guaranteed employees the right to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes, as well as places a ban on company unions. In 1948, their efforts were partly realized with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted the activities and power of labor unions.
During this time, NAM focused on economic education as it sought to counter what many business leaders identified as the collectivist tendencies of post-war liberalism (powerful government, high taxes, strong labor unions, and anti-big business sentiment). Its most successful economic education programs included: “How our Business System Operates,” and “Our American Heritage.” Another program of this sort was a clergy-industry relations program that sought to transmit a greater understanding of national issues through clergymen. NAM’s publication Dateline reached more than 30,000 clergymen.
Hagley Library's digital collections of NAM material draws selections from our collections of National Association of Manufacturers photographs and audiovisual materials (Accession 1973.418), National Association of Manufacturers Records (Accession 1411), and items in our Published Collections department. To view this collection online now in our Digital Archive, click here.