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18 September 2006 @ 04:34 am
Who will protect the working girl?  

lj book reviews
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.

Kate Schaeferkate_schaefer on September 20th, 2006 05:48 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this, Fred.

I started to write a long rambling thang going from the Triangle fire to modern sweatshop conditions and why modern clothes are so inexpensive -- overall considerably less expensive in both relative and absolute terms than in our youth -- and why it is that humans wear clothes in the first place, but I keep getting tangled up in the digressions. So thanks.
Fred A Levy Haskell: Geri's Fred eyes onlyfredcritter on September 21st, 2006 07:43 am (UTC)


I know it doesn't read like it but I spent a couple of weeks thinking about that piece and whacking at bits of it and trying to put it into a presentable shape and scribbling bits and pieces and phrases and getting frustrated and then I finally spent a couple-three hours in one long stretch writing and rewriting the d*mn*d thing and I'm still not sure it's any good at all but it almost hung together and made some sort of sense and I felt strongly that it was something I wanted to say no matter how poorly I said it so I posted it and then nobody said anything about it for like two days until you did and I didn't know if folks just skipped it because it was too long or didn't like it or what and whether maybe one or two people will be interested enough to look at the book and it was getting a bit crazy-in-the-head here about it all....


… deep … calming … breaths …

Sorry … All better now.

So, anyway, thanks for commenting. I very much appreciate it.

Kate Schaeferkate_schaefer on September 21st, 2006 03:08 pm (UTC)
It does, too, read like you thought about it a lot.

I'd bet that it's working away in the backbrains of other people, too. You have to figure that for every comment you get, you have at least ten other people who are going, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, this is really interesting, what can I say to show how much it interested me without seeming like an idiot. The more serious the topic, the more fear one has of seeming like an idiot.

The most comments I've ever had on anything I've written in LJ was when I went shoe shopping. I don't think that means my friends are more interested in shoe shopping than in free speech in China or supporting Clarion West; I think it means that shoes are an easy topic to talk about, and it gave my friends a chance to say that they were reading what I write without having to go out on a limb about scary stuff and without having to say something like, yes, I too believe that beginning writers should receive financial support.