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Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
David von Drehle
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(Those of you who know about the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire are welcome to simply skim or skip my two introductory paragraphs.)
On March 24, 1911, 146 employees of the Triangle Waist Company died as the result of a fire. The majority of those who died were young women—women in their mid-teens to early-twenties—and most were recent Jewish or Italian immigrants. They made women’s blouses—shirtwaists or “waists” as they were called at the time. To this day, it is still the worst American industrial factory fire in history (although it maintains that “distinction” in part because American corporations now locate most of their sweatshops overseas).
Triangle occupied the top three floors—the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors—of the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street—that’s a half-block east of Washington Square in lower Manhattan. Before it was over, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people had gathered in the streets below and witnessed the tragedy—they saw smoke and flames pouring from the building; they saw over fifty people leaping from the windows to their deaths, their bodies piling up on the streets and sidewalks below. Hook and Ladder No. 20 had arrived quickly and extended its ladder—the tallest in New York at the time—but it only reached to the sixth floor.
Leon Stein’s The Triangle Fire may still be the canonical reference, but in my opinion David von Drehle’s book exceeds it in several ways. First, it places the fire in its complex contextual web of historical, social, economic, legal, and other factors. It’s hard, at least for me, to look back almost one hundred years and really understand the full meaning of this, or any other, event. Was the building-owner’s attitude toward, say, fire escapes particularly egregious or merely typical of the times? What was the usual building inspection practice and did the inspectors fail to do their duty as it was then seen? Why were those young women willing to work under unsafe conditions?
Also, von Drehle does not neglect context in terms of the effects and reverberations this event and the ensuing general outrage had on later history—on our more recent past—although there is still much to be learned and much farther to go in this respect.
Next, he does an admirable job of illuminating the background and circumstances of many of the people who were in some way involved; not just the well-known, “important” people, but also the workers—some who survived, some who died. He gave me something of a feel for what life was like for a first-generation-immigrant working-girl in New York in 1911—someone who worked sewing shirtwaists for a pittance so she and her family could survive.
Finally, he writes with a novelist’s hand; that is, he vividly described the events in this book so well they could almost be experienced, rather than just read. Reading this book was at times terrifying and difficult, but ultimately well worthwhile.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. But if you’re not yet convinced, read the reviews on Amazon.com from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.
I also want to mention this. The fire broke out some time between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m. The first fire alarm was given at 4:45 p.m.
The fire was brought under control in eighteen minutes. It was practically “all over” in half an hour, said the Times…
Shortly after six o’clock, teams of firemen spread through the building in search of victims.
On the second floor they found Maurice Samuelson of the cloak firm of Samuelson and Company. He had heard a commotion in the street and had gone to the front window of his office to see what was causing it. He opened the window. Without warning, a body shot by. Several more came rushing down in the next few seconds.
When the firemen found him, Samuelson was still standing at the window, immobilized by horror, frozen by fear. He whispered to them hoarsely that he could not move. Gently, the firemen led him to the street.
—Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire, pages 73 & 77.
For further information see: Triangle Factory Fire on web site of the ILR School at Cornell University.
See also: BehindTheLabel.org about current sweatshop issues.