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Introduction

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 1911 was a wake-up call especially to local and state governments to improve a range of serious fire protection deficiencies. The wake-up call had been going on for several years before that fire, but the national publicity from the Triangle Fire elevated the visibility and need for improved fire protection. Many municipal governments had been lax in setting and enforcing building and operational standards that ensured protection of life and property from fires. The problems were huge. This short article points to several factors needing resolution and improvement.

One issue was the cost of dealing with fires. Compared to other countries, the cost in the United States for fire loss was very high. Here are some supporting data from 1908:[1]

 

Country Loss Period Per Capita
Austria 1898-1902 $0.29
Denmark 1901 $0.26
France 1900-1904 $0.30
Germany 1902 $0.49
Italy 1901-1904 $0.12
Switzerland 1901-1903 $0.30
U.S. 1902-1905 $3.02
The source also noted that in Europe, nearly all fires are confined to the buildings or place of origin, while in the U.S. that is not the case due largely to a low standard of construction that involved combustible materials and inadequate designs. The article appealed to the insuring public to demand proper building laws, more efficient water supplies and better fire department equipment. The article stated that the total property loss in the U.S. in 1907 was $199.4 million and the average annual loss during the previous five years was $251.0 million. One source indicated that this level of loss would have build the Panama Canal in less than two years and exceeded the combined cost of the United States Army and Navy. It cost more than 1,500 lives and 5,000 serious injuries annually. Another issue was the frequency of fires. Periodically, the Insurance Engineering publication created lists of fires for different categories of occupancy. Shortly after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it published a compilation of only clothing factory fires for 1911[2], the year when the fateful fire occurred. In the United States from January 3, 1911 through December 12, 2011 there were 150 fires for this industry group alone. Of those listed, 52 or 35% occurred in New York City. At the time, New York City was a hub for clothing manufacturing. Having 150 fires in the same industry group within one year in the United States was alarming by itself. One of the leading organizations in the campaign for improved U.S. fire protection at the time was the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Powell Evans was Chairman of the Fire Prevention Committee. Between 1908 and 1911 he made eleven published presentations to state and local government bodies, professional groups (architects and engineers), and at a White House conference[3] . In his addresses, he cited may sources to support arguments for improved fire protection. Below are a few examples. The presentations addressed many of the following topics and issues:
  • The fire waste in the U.S. is a national calamity and must be reduced.
  • States must establish and enforce a building code.
  • States must establish an office of Fire Marshal with inspection authority and similarly at local levels with sufficient supporting staff for dealing with construction and occupancy.
  • Municipalities must have disciplined, non-political, well-equipped and paid fire departments.
  • Cities must have and maintain adequate water supply and distribution to extinguish fires.
  • Fire control should be incorporated in all building construction.
  • Architects and engineers should be taught effective fire prevention as part of design.
He cited A. F. Dean, a well-known insurance industry underwriting expert: “The difference between our country and Europe seems to be that we are lavish in extinguishing fires and negligent in preventing them. A fire department appeals to our love for the dramatic, but it is complicated, costly and only too often absurdly inefficient. On the other hand, fire prevention, with its unbounded scope of efficiency, is simple and relatively inexpensive, but it is prosaic and commonplace, with wide intervals of time between cause and effect, and such things do not appeal to our national temperament, which looks for immediate results.” In an editorial one writer, Arthur E. McFarlane[4], noted that in one year New York City had about five times the fire loss of London and nine times that of Paris. He stated that in one year “we burn up half the value of the buildings we erect in the same year.” He also complained about the loss of life. He cited former New York Fire Chief Croker: “New York pays $8,000,000 annually for the maintenance of its fire department and about $15,000 a year to prevent fires!” He argued that most of the building laws in force were inadequate and obsolete. He noted that the U.S. has the preventive medicine for fire, but for about fifty years fire has been endemic in America. In related articles Arthur E. McFarlane provided many details to support his arguments. One article[5] argued for improved construction in loft buildings where the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred at the 8th to 10th floors. It argued for improved construction based on what happened in the Asch Building and its Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. He described many deficiencies typical of loft factories located 7 floors from the ground and higher. He explained that the fire department could not deal with fires above the seventh floor. His account is eye-opening. An addition issue for building construction in cities including New York during this time period was the potential for a conflagration, a fire that gets away or gets out of hand. Several United States cities had such experiences, including San Francisco, Baltimore and Bangor[6] and also Toronto, Canada. In New York such an event would trigger a financial panic for the city and all of the United States. In another article[7], Mr. McFarlane detailed the reasons for such a possible event in New York. He detailed buildings identified as “conflagration breeders” and “conflagration feeders.” A conflagration breeder is a building or business occupation in which fires are likely to break out as a matter of course and likely to set fire to surrounding buildings. Conflagration feeders are those buildings that can be ignited from without and are filled with flammable contents. Examples were the many tenement buildings found in New York that housed at least 700,000 people in the early 1900s. Other writers explained in their article[8] the schemes that often occurred at the time to conduct arson for profit. There were crooked fires and crooked fire adjustments, all adding to the fire waste and loss of life and property. Part of the issue was the scale of fires and arson cases. For example, in New York City each borough had a fire marshal who was to investigate the origins of all fires. However, with a staff of 9, the office could not keep up with the 12,000 fires per year that occurred. Even when insurance companies offered significant rewards for arson cases, rarely was there any pursuit of the reward. The challenge including having a strong fire marshal office and licensing of insurance brokers and agents so that illegal behavior would lead to a loss of license or criminal convictions. By the time the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occurred, there were many issues in fire protection and a growing need to address them. Solutions would take many years and much legislative action.

References

  1. “An Appeal to the Public,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 16, No. 2, August 1908, pp. 83-85.
  2. “Clothing Factory Fire Record,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 22, No. 4, April 1911, pp. 72-74.
  3. Powell Evans, A Five Years’ Fight Against Fire Waste and Its Possible Control in the United States, Fire Prevention and Protection, 1912.
  4. McClure’s Magazine, Vol. 37, No. 5, Sept. 1911, pp. 482-483.
  5. Arthur E. McFarlane, “Fire and the Skyscaper: The Problem of Protecting the Workers in New York’s Tower Factories,” McClure’s Magazine, Vol 37, No. 5, September 1911, pp. 467-483.
  6. “Bangor Conflagration – Property Loss About $3,000,000,” Insurance Engineering, Vol. 21, No. 5, May 1911, pp. 332-338.
  7. Arthur E. McFarlane, “The Conflagration Hazard in New York,” McClure’s Magazine, Vol. 38, No. 2, December 1911, pp. 123-175.
  8. Leon Platky and Walter Lippmann, “The ‘FAT’ in the Fire – The Temptation of the Insurance Policy,” Everybody’s Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 5, November 1911, pp.654-662.

Featured photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

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