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A Factory Fire and Frances Perkins

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, By an unknown photographer, New York City, New York, April 5, 1911; General Records of the Department of Labor; Record Group 174; National Archives.

Demonstration of protest and mourning for Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911, By an unknown photographer, New York City, New York, April 5, 1911; General Records of the Department of Labor; Record Group 174; National Archives.

Today marks 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—a blaze that lasted 18 minutes and left 146 workers dead.

Among the many in New York City who witnessed the tragedy was Frances Perkins, who would later become FDR’s Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to serve in a Presidential cabinet.

As Secretary of Labor, Perkins was instrumental in creating and implementing the Social Security Act—but she was also intensely interested in the safety and rights of workers. “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen,” she said.

Perkins had a degree from Mount Holyoke College, where her coursework included touring factories. She later earned a master’s degree in in social economics from Columbia University. She had been working as factory inspector in New York at the time of the fire.

The fire started in a wastebasket on the eighth floor, and the flames jumped up onto the paper patterns that were hanging from the ceiling.

In an oral history, blouse operator Mary Domsky-Adams recalled that “My own machine was located near the locked front doors, and I often looked with fear at the darkness that loomed through the half-glassed door, which made me feel as if some secret force were peering out from there. And it was before this door that the greatest number of victims were caught; they had surged to the door, hoping to escape, but couldnt break through, because the door always was securely locked.”

Locked doors kept the workers from escaping; there was not enough water to put out the flames, and firemen’s ladders were too short to reach the upper stories. Many of the young women and men working there leapt out the windows and fell to their deaths onto the sidewalk outside. Others were crushed in the elevator shaft or when the fire escape collapsed.

After the fire, Perkins was the secretary for the Committee on Safety. This committee led the way to 36 new labor laws, which included restrictions on child labor and working hours, and also providing compensations to workers injured on the job.

Her commitment to the safety of workers continued when she became Secretary of Labor.  According to this website, “child labor was abolished, minimum wage and maximum-hour laws were enacted, and, through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers were guaranteed the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

When she died in 1965, Perkins’ legacy was a long lifetime of labor reform inspired by the 146 workers whose lives were cut short on a terrible afternoon in 1911.

Photograph of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in an automobile, apparently at the White House shortly after President Roosevelt's death, 04/12/1945

Photograph of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in an automobile, apparently at the White House shortly after President Roosevelt's death, 04/12/1945 (Harry S. Truman Library; 199065)

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Comments

Comment from Tod Larke
Time March 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I grew up with this story, and that of the Rose Hill Mine Fire in Illinois ,as examples of one man believing that his wealth was more important than his worker’s lives.