Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #159. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Architecture and games.
Take a look around the game world in Dishonored and you’ll soon see a series of high-density industrial buildings. While these can be found pretty much all over the place, the best examples in my personal opinion are located in the Flooded District, most notably the Greaves Refinery. According to various clues hidden throughout the area, this particular building was used to refine whale oil for the Greaves Lighting Oil Company. The structure was ultimately abandoned when the Wrenhaven River overran its banks during the Rat Plague, flooding the building and leaving the Greaves Refinery little more than a site for squatters.
The building consists of several stories filled with various materials from office supplies to industrial equipment, suggesting the wide range of different uses to which the structure has been put. While some of the space appears to be dedicated to administration, the Greaves Refinery is mostly about manufacturing, several parts being filled with vats, tanks and bottles. While the wooden floors are clearly rotten to the point of collapse, you can still see workbenches covered with tools like hammers and screwdrivers, apparently untouched ever since the structure was abandoned. The interior and exterior doors are mostly of the high security metal type which can stand up to almost any sort of tampering. When seen from outside, the building is largely characterized by its brick walls and smokestacks, but a metal bridge can also be found connecting a couple of separated segments.
This form of high-density industrial building was incredibly common a couple of hundred years ago, particularly in places like New York. There was in fact a famous fire which resulted in several dozen fatalities and the destruction of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory back in 1911. The incident was entirely preventable and made infinitely worse by the implementation of incredibly poor practices regarding safety standards, basically nonexistent at the time. The fire wound up taking the lives of 146 working people through some combination of smoke inhalation, burning and jumping from windows to escape the blaze. The victims were mostly women and girls fresh off the boat from Italy and Germany. The oldest person was 43 and the youngest were barely 14 years old. Their names were Providenza Panno, Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese, respectively.
The factory was located between the eighth and tenth floors of the Asch Building, a structure which still stands about a block away from Washington Park. The owners were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, a pair of entrepreneurs who started a business producing women’s blouses, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Blanck and Harris had something like 500 people working approximately 52 hours a week between Monday and Saturday for the equivalent of about $800 a month in today’s currency, roughly $4 an hour. There was no minimum wage at the time. This would only be implemented several decades later in 1938.
The fire broke out as the workday was coming to a close on the afternoon of March 25. While the cause remains unknown, someone likely tossed a cigarette butt into a dust bin below a cutter’s table on the eighth floor which happened to contain several months’ worth of accumulated scrap from a few thousand blouses. There was hanging fabric all over the place which of course caused the flames to spread with incredible speed, climbing up to the tenth floor within a matter of minutes. While the factory had multiple exits including freight elevators and a fire escape, they were all inaccessible either because of the flames or the simple fact that most of the doors leading to the stairs were locked, a practice frequently employed at the time to prevent workers from taking breaks. The fire escape was a flimsy metal structure that soon collapsed from the intense heat, causing about 20 people to fall several stories onto the ground below, killing them instantly. The gated elevators were of course reserved for management.
Several workers fled to the roof of the building, but as the blaze kept burning, the flames rose higher, firefighters being unable to help, their ladders only reaching up to the seventh floor. The result was that many people wound up jumping, something which produced a number of particularly sad scenes, a man for example being seen kissing a woman before both tumbled from a window. The journalist William Shepard later described how “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture, the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.” This managed to attract a large crowd of people who looked on as no less than 62 people jumped from the burning structure.
Blanck and Harris went on to be charged with manslaughter, their case being brought before a court several months later on December 4. The owners walked away following an acquittal but were eventually found guilty of wrongful death in a subsequent lawsuit. While the families were awarded $75 in compensation, Blanck and Harris actually turned a profit from the settlement, collecting around $400 for each one of the victims based on their insurance claim. The fire on the other hand led to legislation about safety standards and provided the necessary impetus for workers to unionize and fight for better conditions.
Dishonored is a game which harkens back to a time when protection for working people was practically nonexistent, ruthless exploitation being the rule. This can be seen throughout the game world, but the Flooded District is perhaps the starkest example, recalling the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. While conditions have definitely improved in the meantime, this particular tragedy provides a reminder that workers have to remain steadfast in their pursuit of better conditions, the struggle for equal opportunity never truly ceasing. The fact of the matter is that if working people don’t keep pushing to get what they deserve, most of the progress made in the past might just be undone.
Justin Reeve is an archaeologist specializing in architecture, urbanism and spatial theory, but he can frequently be found writing about videogames, too. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinAndyReeve.