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Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (2003)

by David Von Drehle

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1,0293115,382 (3.89)117
Describes the 1911 fire that destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York's Greenwich Village, the deaths of 146 workers in the fire, and its implications for twentieth-century politics and labor relations.
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A look at the fire at the Triangle Waist Shirt factory the lives lost and the aftermath of the disaster. Many questions remain unanswered and in most case those questions will never be answered. Prior to 9/11 this was the worst loss of life in a building fire and some of the issues that happened during this fire would occur again during the 9/11 tragedy. Fireman unable to reach those on the higher floors, those unable to escape jumping rather burning, panic and confusion. ( )
  foof2you | May 24, 2021 |
Too dense. only got about 10% through ( )
  cjordan916 | Apr 15, 2021 |
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who were unable to escape the 8th and 9th floors. Some of them jumped from the factory's windows; some jumped down the elevator shaft; some burned a few feet from a door that was likely locked. I'd heard about this disaster and how it led to major labor reforms in the United States, but I knew little of the specifics. Von Drehle has written a solid history, which covers a major strike at the factory in 1909, conditions under which so many Eastern European immigrants came to the US, reform efforts before and after the fire, and the influence of the fire on American politics through the New Deal. Parts of the book are a bit dry, but the background stories of some of the major figures involved and of the victims is interesting, and the description of the fire itself is harrowing.

4 stars ( )
  katiekrug | Jan 26, 2021 |
An excellent account of the fire that is one of the best known industrial accidents. The author takes you on a trip through the political and social world in which the fire occurred, including an explication of Tammany Hall, who played a large role both in the events that led up to the fire, and in the events that followed. The author attempts to recreate the world of some of these immigrants, both the world they came from and the world in which they were now living, but does not make up things to go beyond the information; you are aware at all times that he is simply recounting historical details in reference to the things that were driving the movement of the people from their home in other countries toward the culmination in the fire. So how did the fire change America? Perhaps a lot less than you might think. ( )
  Devil_llama | Jul 28, 2020 |
Overall, an interesting analysis of the Triangle fire, one of the deadliest workplace disasters in New York history, and it held the record for ninety years.

One of the witnesses was Frances Perkins, who witnessed many of the employees jumping from windows on the eighth and ninth stories, choosing to die in that way rather than be burned alive. Some of those who died in the fire were so badly burned that their dentists had to be consulted, and others identified only through their jewelry (in at least one case, a fiancé identified his fiancée because he recognized her engagement ring). After seeing this, Frances Perkins became especially interested in factory conditions and later became FDR’s secretary of labor and the first female cabinet member in US history.

I appreciated how the account of the fire was set in the broader political and social context of the time, which included not only the organization of unions and the labor strife which accompanied it, but also the increasing tide of feminism and the reform efforts that followed the fire. Not to mention New York City’s commercial arson industry; it was a common tactic to burn down an unprofitable factory (usually a factory that had made a product no longer in fashion) and allow the owners to profit from the insurance payout – and many owners carried fire insurance policies far in excess of the value of their factories for just this purpose. However, all evidence indicates that arson was not a factor in the Triangle fire.

As for the feminist movement, I found it especially interesting that the book pointed out that:

“…many of the tasks that were centralized and mechanized in America’s factories and mills were traditionally the work of women, once done at home: the sewing, the spinning, the making of sweets and pickles and soap. Legions of women followed this work out of the kitchen and into the shop…nearly a third of all factory workers in the state of New York at the that time were women.” (Pages 44-45).

It made sense, then, for women to become more concerned about having a voice in the conditions under which they worked and in the forefront of the movement for reform.

There was also a trial, in which the two owners of the factory were charged with manslaughter (mostly because one of the exits to the factory had been locked during working hours, and so a large number of workers could not escape the flames). The case is infamous in most evidence classes because of how the defendant’s attorney destroyed the credibility of one of the witnesses, Kate Alterman, who barely escaped the flames, and who had likely memorized a previously prepared statement; the defense attorney undermined the true testimony by repeatedly asking her to repeat her statements, which varied each time she did so. The question in evidence class was: how would you rehabilitate this witness on redirect? (In the actual trial, the prosecution somehow didn’t try). Given that almost all of the victims were immigrant teenagers, it was unlikely that English was their first language – and if Kate’s was not, it might explain why she would try to prepare an account beforehand and ask someone more familiar with English to help her – especially if, as is likely, it was her first time testifying in court; and asking questions to elicit such information on redirect probably would have helped. An “asked and answered” objection when the defense attorney asked Kate to repeat her testimony might also have been useful. The defense attorney also insisted on requiring all the witnesses to testify in English without an interpreter (the judge allowed interpreters in some cases), resulting in a lot of the prosecution’s witnesses testifying in broken English and helping to undermine their credibility with the jury – as difficulty speaking English was often considered an indication of stupidity at the time. And I do understand why a lot people dislike lawyers for tactics like this, which were successful in obtaining a verdict of not guilty. On top of that, the judge sympathized with the defendants, since he had also once been blamed for a deadly fire. By way of mitigation, I’ll point out that the law students in the building immediately adjacent were instrumental in saving multiple employees from the fire.

The epilogue pointed out that:

“Though the risk of death in the American workplace has been cut to one-thirtieth of what is was in 1911, there are still some shops and factories that would be instantly recognizable to Rosie Freedman and the rest of the Triangle dead. In 1991, in Hamlet, North Carolina, twenty-five workers died behind locked doors in a flash fire at a poultry plant. Conditions in poorer countries are far worse. A fire at a toy factory in Bangkok in 1993 left nearly two hundred workers dead. Factory owners had locked the doors to prevent theft of toys by their employees.”

Because the subject matter is both appalling and depressing, I would recommend alternating this with some lighter book in your favorite genre.
( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
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Epigraph
The "Triangle" company...With blood this name will be written in the history of the American workers' movement, and with feeling will this history recall the names of the strikers of this shop - of the crusaders.
--Jewish Daily Forward
January 10,1910
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for Karen
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Prologue: Manhattan's Charities Pier was known as Misery Lane because that was where the bodies were put whenever disaster struck.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Describes the 1911 fire that destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York's Greenwich Village, the deaths of 146 workers in the fire, and its implications for twentieth-century politics and labor relations.

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