A fire started just before quitting time which burned the top three floors of the Asch Building in downtown Manhattan, where around 500+ workers, mostly women, were collecting their things to leave for the day. This fire was the cause of the largest
pre-September 11th 2001 workplace disaster in history of the United States. 146 people lost their lives in the Triangle shirtwaist factory that day, of which 123 were women. The building was dubbed fire proof by its owner, which was basically correct, the building suffered no structural damages that day. The problem was that the 500+ workers, along with the tons of cloth and paper were not fire proof.
The author of the book, David Von Drehle, was a reporter for the Washington Post when he wrote the book, which he started before the WTC attacks. Drehle takes you on a journey through the Triangle shirtwaist factory on the days, months and years before, during, and after the fire. Drehle also takes a deep look into the political and economic troubles most immigrant workers endured during that time. He also looks into the garment industry of the time, including the sweatshops conditions and labor wars that dominated headlines for months before and after.
Drehle gives us a bird’s eye type view of the time, and while much of the book is focused on the fire and it’s outcome, it’s more than halfway through the book before he begins to explore the factory and the fire on March 25, 1911. Drehle poured over thousands of pages of testimony, and other court and public records of the time to bring us, probably, the most complete and careful writing account of the tragedy at the Triangle factory. At the end of the book Drehle compiles the most accurate to date list of victims of “The Fire That Changed America.”
The book begins in the prologue with a quick introduction for those who know nothing of the Triangle fire, but then quickly moves from the fire to an earlier time to set the stage for the following tragedy. Drehle goes through the steps to explain the political atmosphere of the period, he tells us of the pasts of the immigrant workers and where they came from, and tells us of the ongoing fights between unions, workers, and factory owners. He talks much about the suffrage movement of the time when women were fighting to get the respect and considerations they deserved in the workplace, along with talking about the labor movement when all workers were fighting for better pay, shorter days, and days off.
Drehle also speaks of the fact that the owners seemed to always have a large fire at certain times of the year, and hints that they could be purposely done to get rid of excess stock that might not sell at the end of a particular season. “Because they kept having fires-and not just little ones that they put out by hand. They were multiple repeaters having collected on several substantial insurance claims from fire damage. And yet they had little difficulty buying all the insurance they wanted.” (page 161). They didn’t seem to want to take extra fire precautions either, inadequate fire escapes, no sprinkler system, a non-working internal fire hose system, and no fire drills. Also the clearly illegal act of locking one door to prevent theft that was estimated at less than $20 per year.
It is not until the 5th chapter, nearly halfway through the book, that Drehle tells the story of the fire. He takes us through the account of many workers that were there that day, the ones that lived, the ones that died, the owners on the top floor, and the heros that saved countless lives with little regard for their own safety. After the account of the fire the book dives into the political and legal actions that followed the fire.
Drehle hints throughout the book that this incident is what started the reform/progressive era in the US. After the disaster many labor unions fought hard for reform in the workplace. And they pushed at Tammany Hall the great democratic political machine to help get the reforms in place. And it is said that these reforms, and their political creators, eventually led to Roosevelt’s New Deal in the ’30’s.
Tammany Hall/the democratic party, used this tragedy as a stepping stone to set the Progressive agenda. They embraced workplace reform from this point forward and turned into the working class party. I feel that one of the main points of the book was not just to shine another light on the tragedy at the Triangle, but also to show how much the incident affected America at the time and led to reform. Tammany, prior to the Triangle fire, wanted nothing to do with political or social reform. Tammany feared a change in the workings of New York City society. But, it is important to note that without their embrace of reform, it’s possible that no reform would ever have come about.
Part of what influence Tammany was probably the 350,000 people that turned up for the procession of dead days after the fire. They slowly shifted their weight behind the working class people. The partnership of Frances Perkins, Al Smith, and Robert Wagner played a key role in the forming of new legislation to protect the rights of the working class.
Drehles account of the Triangle fire, although not an enjoyable story because of the dreadful incident, was a good read. He did a wonderful job of including the lives of many of those that worked in the garment industry. He uses a unique narrative style that pulls you into the book from the beginning of the first chapter. He uses much description to illustrate the lives and goings on of all of the people that work at the Triangle.
My opinion is that Drehles account of the Triangle incident would be easily enjoyed by all mature readers looking to get a better view of what was the worst workplace disaster before September 11th 2001.