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Book review: "Triangle, The Fire That Changed America" by David Von Drehle

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One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911, a fire raced through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. 146 workers died, almost all of them women. Betsy Kepes has this review of Triangle, The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle. (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003)

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Betsy Kepes
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At the Triangle Company, the largest blouse factory in New York, the sewing machines stopped at 4:30 that Saturday, the short day of the 52 hour work week.  Women chatted on their way to get their coats and stand in line at the narrow exits. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris required all their 500 employees to have their bags examined before they left by elevator or stairs. They feared theft more than fire and kept another exit door on each floor locked. Von Drehle writes: “They were rich men, and when they glanced into the faces of their workers they saw, with rare exceptions, anonymous cogs in a profit machine.”

The fire started on the eighth floor, probably a cigarette tossed in a tinder dry pile of cotton scraps. Within five minutes the entire area was a maelstrom of fire. The flames spread quickly to the ninth and tenth floors. Some ran through the flames to take the stairs to the roof. Others rushed screaming into the freight elevators. Those who tried the rickety, inadequate fire escape died when it collapsed. A manager unlocked a door on the eighth floor but no one had the key for the ninth floor door and a crowd piled up there, desperate to get out. As the fire roared through the building the trapped workers pressed against the windows. Below them fire trucks waited, their ladders too short, their nets too weak to hold the bodies that plummeted to the street.

Who were the women who died? Most were new immigrants, young Jewish women from Eastern Europe and Catholic women from Italy. The women were, Von Drehle writes, “underpaid and overworked, but also independent, resolute and freethinking.” A year earlier these immigrant women had walked out of their jobs, activating a bitter strike as they called for better working conditions, union representation and a week shortened to 52 hours. They found allies in the wealthy Progressive community. College girls joined the picket lines and society matrons held rallies. 

Von Drehle writes vividly of the strike, the fire and the trial that followed. Though industrial accidents were common in New York, the Triangle fire horrified the city and 250,000 people participated in a funeral procession for the dead. Even Tammany Hall couldn’t ignore the uproar. The powerful Democratic political machine that ruled New York gave two of its best to the new Factory Investigating Commission. Al Smith and Robert Wagner pushed hard for worker safety legislation. The laws improved working conditions for thousands of workers in New York State.

At the back of the book Von Drehle includes a complete list of the victims of the Triangle fire. Vincenza Benenti, age22. Essie Bernstein, age19. Ida Brodsky, age 16. The young women who died never gained the right to vote and the many other freedoms American women have today. But the horror of their deaths helped the United States become a more compassionate, inclusive nation. We need to remember and continue the fight.

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