Fire!: An American Burning is a five-episode podcast series that delves into the stories of twentieth and twenty-first century industrial fires in American cities and their profound connection to contemporary climate crisis, produced by Belt Magazine and hosted by Ryan Schnurr. Today’s episode delves into New York’s deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. 





Elissa Sampson: We’re in New York. And we’re in Greenwich Village. And we’re on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, which is another word for saying we’re in the middle of NYU land…

HOST: Elissa Sampson is an urban geographer who studies public memory at Cornell. We were standing in front of the Asch Building, or Brown Building, the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, one of the most famous fires in U.S. history. The corner of the building was blocked off for construction, preparing for the installation of a memorial.

ES: In this case, the memorial is basically being planned over one hundred years after the anniversary of the fire. So there is nothing in this story that’s intuitively obvious, other than that those who died in the fire––

HOST: One hundred and forty-six people, mainly young immigrant women and girls––

ES: ––Mainly unmarried, greenhorns or גרינהאָרנס in Yiddish, Eastern European Jewish and southern Italian––died here. And these are very unrestful dead.


Host: From Belt Magazine, this is Fire, exclamation point––a podcast about industrial fires in American life. I’m Ryan Schnurr. This episode begins at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City. The factory was owned by the ‘Shirtwaist Kings,’ Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, whose company manufactured women’s shirts––a popular style of button-down blouse––at the turn of the twentieth century. But chances are, if you’ve heard of the factory, it’s because of the fire that happened there on March 25, 1911.

The shirtwaist fire, like the Cuyahoga River fire in the last episode, revealed the complex economic, cultural, and political relationships at the heart of urban industry in the early twentieth century––and what it takes to form a meaningful public response. It’s a story of labor, politics, and the collective power of workers to transform the way we work.


Source: Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University/unknown photographer


ES: Okay, so if we look up at the building, we see that there’s a seventh, eighth, and ninth floor, plus there’s a roof above that, right? Then of course there’s the tenth floor. Now, the eighth floor had very specific work. And so did the tenth, and so did the ninth, and so we have to work our way back.

HOST: The tenth floor was the business office––bosses, salespeople, bookkeepers. The eighth and ninth floors were manufacturing. The eighth floor was the cutting floor, and at the ends of the cutting tables were baskets of scraps. That’s where the fire started near the end of the workday––lit, most likely, by a runaway cigarette.

Sigmund Arywitz: Perhaps you better tell us right from the very beginning, what were you doing when you were first––became aware of the fire?

Dora Maisler: I was changing my skirt.

HOST: This is a 1957 interview with Dora Maisler, a sample maker from the eighth floor who survived the fire. She’s talking about what she experienced that day. She’s interviewed by Sigmund Arywitz, the former California State Commissioner of Labor, and an unidentified woman. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Female Voice: Do you remember about what time of day it was?

DM: Five o’clock.

DM: I didn’t even lose time to open my drawer and take my pay. I left the pay there.

SA: So then you went to the door. Now, was that the––the door of the elevator?

DM: The door of the elevator…

SA: Well, how about the lock doors?

DM: …Four elevators in the whole building: two freight and two front elevators.

HOST: It’s a little hard to hear, but Dora says it was around five o’clock––probably a little before, maybe four forty-five––and when she saw the fire, she ran right to the elevator at the front of the building.

FV: You were the first one…

DM: I was the first one at the doorknob…. So what I did is I––when they were really screaming and burning, so I held them out, and I pushed everybody back and I––and I raised my––with my foot I broke the––the window. You know, there was a window in the door. And that was the time he came up. And by the time he made––he only made one trip because everybody, maybe a hundred of them, wanted to get in.

HOST: She’s the first one at the door, and she can’t get it open, so she kicks in the window. And everybody is trying to cram into the elevator––they don’t want to wait for the operator to come back up.

DM: And then––then I finally got downstairs. And that was…They were jumping already and all that.

HOST: People started jumping down the elevator shaft to escape the fire. Many of them would die.

SA: Well, why wasn’t the elevator able to go up again to get the other people?

DM: The––the cables broke. They were burning already.

SA: The cable broke while you were going down?…How did the elevator stop? Did it…

DM: They went down to stop at the basement.

SA: It crashed down to the basement.

DM: Yes. Yes.

HOST: So all of this is happening on the eighth floor.

ES: They call the tenth floor, where the bosses, as a practical matter. That meant people on the eighth floor had a head start getting out of the building to the elevators or the staircase. And those on the tenth floor had fair warning and were able to make it to the roof. Only one person on the tenth floor died.

The ninth floor is not warned…The fire doors on the ninth floor were locked, they were padlocked––that was another thing that Blanck and Harris did. They padlock fire doors so people won’t take breaks… So we have the floor which has the least notice, and the least egress, as that’s the floor that––basically on which people get trapped.

HOST: The ninth floor was the main sewing floor, with long rows of sewing machines lined up elbow-to-elbow. People are packing up for the day, and they see the flames outside the window, from the floor below. By this time, the elevators aren’t running, the stairwell is packed, and the fire starts spreading across the oiled wood floors.

ES: Now, because these tables are on fire, because the floors are on fire, because fire spreads incredibly rapidly if there’s flammable material and combustion, and it’s impossible to get out…What happens is people are trapped next to the windows. And they start to jump.

HOST: Washington Square Park is two blocks away. It’s full of people. And one of the people who happened to be out that day was the head of the New York Consumers League, Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins: And we heard the engines, and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see what the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square, and the people had just begun to jump when we got there.

HOST: People from the eighth floor had gathered on the ground, and people from the tenth floor––including Blanck and Harris––were now on the roof. The ninth floor was crowding on the windowsills, waiting for the fire department. But the building was tall for the era, and their ladders could only reach as high as the seventh floor.

FP: So they couldn’t wait any longer. I mean they began to jump. The window was too crowded, and they would jump, and they hit the sidewalk. The net broke…the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling, that they broke through the net. And every one of them was killed, everybody who jumped was killed. And it was a horrifying spectacle.



David Von Drehle: Working around the turn of the twentieth century was incredibly dangerous in America. Workers were dying on the job all the time, every day, by the hundreds.

HOST: That’s David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.

DVD: Factories were incredibly unsafe, machinery unprotected…The whole thing was somehow treated like––sometimes they would refer to these deaths as, quote, acts of God, as if, you know, nothing could be done to make workplaces any safer.

HOST: This was especially true in the growing industrial corridors of American cities, like New York. Elissa Sampson, who grew up on the Lower East Side, put it like this:

ES: What we call the Lower East Side today is not identical to what it was back in the day. In 1910, you have a majority of Jews––you have many other groups, Slavs, Italians, Greeks, you know, you had Black residents, but it’s mainly a very poor Jewish immigrant area. It is the densest area on planet Earth.

Tenement work, in terms of sweatshops and manufacturing, has been pushed out, by New York City, of the Lower East Side, and pushed into more industrial lofts. And so you have the factory, the modern factory. It’s the New York garment trade version of Fordism.

HOST: In other words, mass production, assembly-line. Seventy percent of the garments worn by women in the U.S. were manufactured in New York, in factories like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

ES: Four out of five garment trade workers were female, and you have an enormous amount of  organizing around labor, you know, starts among Jews in 1881. You have the United Hebrew trades founded. But it takes an enormous amount of time and work to reach a level on which mass organization is possible.

HOST: A year and a half before the fire, in 1909, the Triangle Factory had been the site of a major labor strike known as the Strike of Twenty Thousand. It was the largest strike organized and led by women in U.S. history, and it was concentrated in the garment industry. It lasted eleven weeks, through the winter and into 1910.

ES: And this was one of the few shops that did not settle in 1909. And anybody who had attended the meeting at Cooper Union, which is nearby, in November of 1909, got fired. So organizing the shop was very, very hard in terms of safety conditions, wages, or anything else.

DVD: New York briefly, for a brief time, fell in love with these school-girl strikers…It was a huge story. And the owners of the Triangle Factory had led the resistance to this strike. And as a result, among progressives of New York, and the labor movement, this factory stood out as representative of everything bad about working conditions.

HOST: Von Drehle says that the Asch Building was actually a highly regarded industrial facility at the time, state-of-the-art in terms of ventilation, electric machines. The building was insured as ‘fireproof.’ But they had never had a fire drill, there were no inspections, and the owners locked the doors because, they said, they were worried about the workers stealing from the company.

DVD: So to have this fire, with a hundred and forty-six people dead, happen at the Triangle Waist Company…it was as if the sort of righteousness of the workers’ cause was written in blood on the sidewalk of New York.

HOST: The city was horrified. The closest parallel is probably 9/11, in terms of the scale of effect on the public. Francis Perkins recalled its effects years later, in 1964.

FP: This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can’t begin to tell you how, how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa!

HOST: Half a million people turned out for a funeral processional of one hundred thousand, streaming up Fifth Avenue. And it wasn’t just New Yorkers––the story became a national concern.



HOST: People decided to organize. The next Sunday, a group gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House nearby. Francis Perkins was there.

FP: This time, we got a little sense of organization, of something must be done. We’ve got to turn this into some kind of victory, some kind of constructive action…

HOST: At the meeting, a young woman named Rose Schneiderman stood up to speak.

Voice Actor (as Schneiderman): This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap, and property is so sacred.

HOST: Schneiderman was a member of the Ladies’ Dress and Waist Union and an organizer with the Women’s Trade Union League.

FP: She couldn’t have been––well, she couldn’t have come up to my shoulder. Very small type but with red hair, fiery red hair, and blazing eyes, and pretty, too. I mean, she had…a voice that was carried in the Metropolitan Opera House.

VA: I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

HOST: They formed the Committee on Safety, a citizen-led group, with Perkins as chair. And they began to put pressure on the legislature.

FP: We decided to ask the legislature to create a commission, and this is where Al Smith came in.

HOST: Smith was a New York state senator representing the district where a lot of the workers lived. He, along with Robert Wagner, created the Factory Investigating Commission to, quote, investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on. They visited fifty plants, investigated more than three thousand workplaces, and gathered seven thousand pages of testimony from workers. David Von Drehle wrote about the commission in Triangle.

DVD: New York City, at the time, was run by a Democratic political machine called Tammany Hall. …It was a rare moment when the Tammany Democrats had complete power statewide. They decided to use that power to pass the most progressive, far-reaching set of workplace safety rules that the United States had ever seen.

HOST: Between 1911 and 1913, New York State passed more than sixty pieces of legislation on worker safety––many of them drafted by the Commission. The new, stricter codes focused on fire safety, ventilation, sanitation, and machine safety, as well as the industry-specific rules. In 1912, the commission released a report concluding that the government, quote, is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers.

DVD: And guess what? It worked. It was hugely popular. The leaders of the Factory Investigating Commission went on to national prominence.

HOST: Al Smith was elected governor of New York in the 1920s. Robert Wagner, chair of the commission, went on to the U.S. Senate. Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency running on the same sort of progressive ticket and appointed Francis Perkins Secretary of Labor. (Rose Schneiderman was appointed to the National Labor Advisory Board.) As Secretary, Perkins was instrumental in the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the minimum wage and the forty-hour work week, and restricted child labor. She also played a significant role in the Social Security Act of 1935.

DVD: And so the agenda of the Factory Investigating Commission, which came directly out of the Triangle fire, ultimately became the progressive agenda for the entire United States through the New Deal.

HOST: In the meantime, workers kept organizing––young Jewish women and others in garment factories and mills beyond New York City. Rose Schneiderman––who stood up that day at the Metropolitan Opera House––spoke frequently on women’s rights and labor, including at a meeting of striking textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912, during which she famously said:

VA: What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist––the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun, and music, and art….The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too…”

HOST: Schneiderman is sometimes credited with coining the slogan “Bread and Roses,” which became a rallying cry for the labor movement, though the phrase “Bread for all, and roses too,” goes back to at least 1911 and a Chicago factory inspector named Helen Todd, who said that she had seen it embroidered on a pillow owned by Mary Harris, the labor activist known more commonly as ‘Mother Jones.’ At any rate, the line was popularized in a poem and later in song:

#MUSIC: “Bread and Roses”: [“As we go marching, marching,/ In the beauty of the day,/A million darkened kitchens,/A thousand mill lofts gray,/Are touched with all the radiance,/That a sudden sun discloses,/For the people hear us singing,/Bread and roses, bread and roses…”]


HOST: So the Triangle fire had an enormous influence on labor organizing, worker safety legislation, and broader progressive U.S. policy in the early-to mid-twentieth century. But the memory of the event itself––the fire, the people who died––faded over time. One of the people who has been instrumental in keeping it alive is Ruth Sergel, who founded a public art project called CHALK.

Ruth Sergel: So starting in 2004, every year, on the anniversary of the Triangle fire, I organize people to go to the former homes of each of the hundred and forty-six workers who perished in the fire and write their name and age in chalk on the pavement in front of the home that they lived in.

HOST: They also post a flier on the building, contextualizing the person’s name and the event. In the beginning, it was just Sergel and a handful of friends. Now more than a hundred people show up every year. They call themselves “CHALKers.” And the intention is to bring the memory of this history into the present day, to literally mark it on the surface of the city.

RS: The participants are extremely diverse. There’s family members of the people who perished, people who live in the buildings now, school groups, people who come to it through their Jewish or Italian American identity, labor people, neighborhood people.

HOST: I’m fascinated by this project because, in marking the names of the dead on the present day, it produces a sort of continuity of experience, linking the participants and observers to a person, to a community, and by extension to a history of exploitation and activism.

RS: There’s something that happens when you participate in CHALK, that you’re playing sort of across the space-time continuum. So when you chalk somebody’s name, you can’t help but like, sort of imagine…what apartment or what window was theirs, and you’re sort of vibrating with that person in that time. And then if you walk down the street and see somebody else’s name chalked, you of course are wondering, ‘Well, were they friends, did they work together? Did they walk to work together?’”

HOST: In 2008, Sergel founded the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a loose alliance that really came about in the tradition of labor organizing in the early twentieth century––simply inviting people with a shared interest to turn that interest into action.

RS: I didn’t know what I was doing, I just organized a meeting of a bunch of people who seem to have a stake in the memory of the fire into a room and said, ‘We should do something for the centennial. Let’s talk about what that might be.’

HOST: The whole thing reminded me of Francis Perkins and the Metropolitan Opera gathering.

RS: So in the end, we made a very open ended coalition where people could join, I think it was like $20. And if you didn’t have $20, you could just join for free. And we sort of took our meetings and made them bigger. And we would just go around in a circle. And you would say who you were, what you wanted to do for the centennial, what you had to offer, and what you were looking for.

HOST: Somebody might want to put on a musical performance, say, and they would find someone who worked with an institution that wanted to host a performance, and they would pair off and do that.

RS: And it was very chaotic and joyful, and just, like, modeling the world that we want to live in.

HOST: Eventually, the coalition grew to more than two hundred and fifty partners across the country, each creating its own programs to commemorate the fire and the workers of the Triangle factory.

RS: You could be there because you were passionate about labor rights, or because you were a woman, or because you were Jewish, or Italian American, or because you really cared about downtown New York, or fire and safety––there was many ways that you could enter the story. And that was a huge strength.


HOST: Commemorating the Triangle fire is not simply about remembering a bygone era. The issues at the heart of the fire––dangerous workplaces, exploitation of labor––continue through the present day in all sorts of industries, from warehouses to farms to retail. Sergel says CHALK is an attempt to connect the Triangle fire to these current conversations. To that end, the flier they post changes to address our evolving context––in 2004 it was about September 11. By 2008 it was about the economic crisis. Now it’s focused on immigration and immigrant workers. Elissa Sampson participates in CHALK each year:

ES: We also have to be very vigilant with ourselves about not engaging in nostalgia and Bootstrap memories, and romanticizing––these people were victims, these people died, it was horrible then, but we’ve learned from it, and we’ve moved on, and we have these laws that got enacted. You know, it’s, it’s an entire misreading of the nature of globalized labor, as well as labor in New York City and elsewhere in America.

HOST: Standing with Dr. Sampson on that corner in Greenwich Village––where, a hundred and ten years previous, the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory died, where the seeds of labor reform were planted––I felt the stirrings of history. The building, like CHALK, pulls a thread through the haze of history, from the triangle strikers through today, a marker of our shared histories, and our relationships across time and space.


HOST: The monument on the Asch Building was unveiled in October 2023––it takes the form of a metal panel draped over the corner of the building like fabric, mimicking the mourning ribbons that would be draped on buildings to symbolize a community’s collective sorrow. The names of those who died are cut into steel panels wrapping around the sides. The creator, Richard Joon Yoo, designed the monument so that sunlight will shine through it onto a mirrored surface, and the names of the dead will be reflected in the sky.

ES: So it’s meant to be a contemplative type of interruption, but one which makes the passer-by––who may or may not be a student––think about what happened here, and how the story itself is a story that we have seen time and time again…The exploitation of immigrant labor is not a new story. And it’s not about to disappear unless people know some of the oldest stories and have that in their toolkit to work with––in order to shape a better future or a different future.

# MUSIC: Women of the World:Bread and Roses” [“As we go marching, marching,/Un-numbered women dead,/Go crying through our singing,/Their ancient call for bread…”

CREDITS: This episode was written and produced by me, Ryan Schnurr, with editing by Dirk Walker and production assistance from Cassidy Duncan. Our voice actor is Courtney Rehder. Theme music by Michael Bozzo. “Bread and Roses” performed by Kate Vikstrom. Archival recordings courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University. Special thanks to everyone who spoke with me for the project, as well as Anna Schnurr, Ray Fouché, Rachel Havrelock, Shannon McMullen, Sharra Vostral, Ed Simon, and the staff of the Kheel Center at Cornell University.

Fire! is a production of Belt Magazine and Fortlander Media. Support for this project came from Belt readers and members, the Purdue University Department of American Studies, Jim Babcock, and the Albert LePage Center for History in the Public Interest. You can find links to sources and further reading, along with more episodes, at

Next time, we’ll head to the southern shores of Lake Michigan, one minute before sunrise––to the explosion that rocked a refinery and a community. See you then.

# MUSIC: Women of the World:Bread and Roses” [“From birth until life closes,/Hearts starve as well as bodies,/Bread and roses, bread and roses.”]


Selected sources and further reading:
Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, The Triangle Fire Memorial

Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire

David Von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America

Ruth Sergel, See You in the Streets: Arts, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Kirsten Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Francis Perkins

Triangle Fire Survivor Oral Histories, Kheel Center Archives, Cornell University

Francis Perkins, Untitled Lecture at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, 1964

Rose Schneiderman’s April 2, 1911 Speech,” Jewish Women’s Archive

Rebecca Onion, “1919 Map of New York City’s Manufacturers Shows a Bygone Industrial Landscape

U.S. Department of Labor, “The New York Factory Investigating Commission

Sydney Franklin, “NYC Landmark Commission Approves Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial


Ryan Schnurr is the author of In the Watershed and writer for hire covering climate, culture, infrastructure, and more. He used to edit Belt Magazine (and still writes there sometimes). He is also the creator of the forthcoming podcast series Fire!, on industrial fires and climate crisis in American cities. Ryan received his PhD and MA from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, respectively, and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Trine University.