History in Review
|Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.
By David von Drehle. (Grove Press: 2004. Pg. 352.)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 18, 2004
On March 26, 1911 a small fire ignited under one of the cutting tables at the Triangle Waist Company's factory located in Manhattan. Within half an hour the fire was extinguished. Yet, within that brief span 146 people, mostly young women, died. Until the tragic events of 9-11, the Triangle fire held the unwanted record of being the worst work place disaster in New York City history. The history of fire at the Triangle Waist Company is more than just a story about the horrific effects of fire - it is a story about sweatshops and work place safety, or the lack thereof. It is also a story about the American labor movement, political corruption, greed, and most important, it is the story of the people who worked, and died, at the Triangle factory.
Of the 146 people that died during the Triangle fire, 123 were women. Most were either Eastern European Jews or Itallian immigrants, and the vast number were in their teens or early twenties. The fire started on the eighth floor of the ten story Asch building. Due to lack of adequate warning, the too few means of egress, and a locked stairwell door, many of those working on the ninth and tenth floors where unable to flee from the building before the fire blocked off their only chances for escape. The victims of the fire died by various means, some died when the building's inadequate fire escaped collapsed, others died of asphyxiation or where burned to death still trying to open the locked exit door, and many jumped from the windows of the ninth story and died of the injuries incurred when they slammed into the concrete pavement below.
David von Drehle, a journalist for The Washington Post has recounted the history of the Triangle factory, and the tragic fire in his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. In addition to reporting on the events surrounding the fire, von Drehle also looks at the history of the labor movement in New York, and the efforts of organizations such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) to improve the working conditions in America. He documents their struggle to organize the workers, and the massive strike that was carried out against the Triangle factory.
When it comes to the fire, itself, he chronicles the events of the day in painstaking and graphic detail. He does this not to sensationalize the events, but to give you some sense of the horror and panic that the workers endured while trying to escape the fire, and to give voice to those that died so tragically. Throughout, von Drehle has interwoven the personal histories of many of the people that worked at the Triangle, explaining why they immigrated to the United States, what their home life was life, and how they managed to survive, or how they died, when fire swept through the factory. In addition to the workers, he also provides background information on most of the people that are mentioned in this book, ranging from Tammany Hall's Tim Sullivan to Judge Crain who presided over the trial of the owners of the Triangle.
In exploring the efforts of people, such as Clara Lemlich, to organized the waist (shirtwaist) workers, von Drehle also examines the working of Tammany Hall and the political corruption that was ramped in New York at the time of the fire. As von Drehle points out, even after this tragedy, the politicians in charge where slow to enact legislation that would help to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring. However the labor movements and stalwart reformers such as Frances Perkins and the Consumer's League, did everything in their power to ensure that fire safety and workplace reforms were enacted.
von Drehle ably chronicles the difficulties that the reformers had in passing the needed legislation, and how, and why, in the end it was passed. He also chronicles the criminal trial of Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of the Triangle, who faced manslaughter changes as a result of the fire. The outcome of the trial, and the impacts of the workplace safety reforms on the American labor movement, the American worker, and industry are also detailed. In short, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America provides a comprehensive and extremely readable account of the fire, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath. This book chronicles a pivotal moment in American labor history, and I highly recommend it, both for its insights into the labor movement at the turn of the last century, and for von Drehle's efforts to give a voice, and a face, to those that died as a result of the Triangle fire.
The graphic nature of the narrative may be disturbing to some readers, but it is, I feel, essential in order to convey the truly horrific nature of the events described. In addition, von Drehle has included detailed endnotes and a list of the fire's 140 victims. Whenever possible, this list includes their names, age, cause of death, home address and who identified their remains. Six of the victims of the fire where never identified.
For more information on the Triangle Factory Fire, visit: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/.
From Cornell University, this website provides a detailed history on the fire, and it includes photos and copies of source documents.
Sweatshop USA, Edited by Daniel E. Bender and Richard A. Greenwald.
The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective.
Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920, Edited by Ellen Ross.
A selection of works by middle and upper class women who ventured into the London slums to engage in social and religious work.
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