“It was as if we had all done something wrong.” Frances Perkins and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

flesh and blood so cheap

This November, the Reading into History Family Book Club is digging into Albert Marrin’s Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy. We’ll meet to discuss this book on Sunday, December 8th, at 3 pm. This work of non-fiction tells the story of how a fire broke out on the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25th, 1911 and killed 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women. The origins of the fire are a tale of tragedy and corruption, and its aftermath is a tale of hard-won triumph for working people.

One of the people responsible for this triumph was a woman named Frances Perkins who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. She later became our nation’s first female member of the U.S. Cabinet, serving as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a fellow New Yorker).

Enit Zerner Kaufman, Frances Perkins, ca. 1940-45, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1947.182

Have you ever witnessed a historic event or one that changed your life? Witnessing the fire, and the desperate ways in which the workers tried to escape from it, deeply affected Perkins. Below is an excerpt of a speech she gave about her experience that awful day at Cornell University on September 30, 1964. In it, she discusses the horrors she witnessed and the role that Al Smith, later a governor of New York, played in grieving with the families of the lost. The full text of this speech can be found here on Cornell’s excellent online exhibition called Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire.

This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can’t begin to tell you 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! We didn’t want it that way. We hadn’t intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory…

I remember that, the accident happened on a Saturday, I happened to have been visiting a friend on the other side of the park 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. They had been holding until that time, standing in the windowsills, being crowded by others behind them, the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer. Finally the [firemen] were trying to get out …a net to catch people if they do jump, there were trying to get that out and [the workers] couldn’t wait any longer. They began to jump…the weight of the bodies was so great, at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net…everybody who jumped was killed. It was a horrifying spectacle. We had our dose of it that night and felt as though we had been part of it all. The next day people, as they heard about it in all parts of the city, they began to mull around and gather and talk.

I remember that Al Smith, who was not a governor at that time but a member of the legislature…found that many many of these young people were residents of the same district he was a resident of and he did the most natural and humane thing…He went to the places where they lived; he went to the tenement they had occupied to see their father and mother and tell them how sorry he was or their husband, as the case might be, or their wife, to tell them of his sympathy and grief…He also got to the morgue, I remember, at just the time when the survivors were being allowed to sort out the dead and see who was theirs and who could be recognized.

…the next Sunday a meeting was called in the Metropolitan Opera House, which was a large available place and thereby 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…

This medalion was presented to then-governor Al Smith and others at a dinner in his honor in 1923.The medal depicts the New York City street where Smith grew up.
Quayle Enamel Company, Medallion from the Albany Legislative Correspondents’ Association annual dinner, 1923, Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 2009.33.9


If you want to know more about the victory Perkins speaks of, and of course more about the fire itself, read Marrin’s excellent book and come discuss it with us on December 8th.


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