Monday, September 5, 2011

The Triangle Factory Fire

On Labor Day (or to be at least a little British on my blog, Labour Day), even though it's off topic, I'd like to highlight a historical event that really fascinates me, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Cornell University hosts this great website with details about the factory, the fire, the survivors, the trials, and the reforms that took effect after that terrible day. One hundred and forty six (146) factory workers died that day, most of them young immigrant women aged 16 to 23. Many of them died jumping from the building to the sidewalks of New York, with people watching in horror.

A few years ago I read Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle:

Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations.

On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people—123 of them women. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City history.

This harrowing yet compulsively readable book is both a chronicle of the Triangle shirtwaist fire and a vibrant portrait of an entire age. It follows the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration that inundated New York in the early years of the century, filling its slums and supplying its garment factories with cheap, mostly female labor. It portrays the Dickensian work conditions that led to a massive waist-worker’s strike in which an unlikely coalition of socialists, socialites, and suffragettes took on bosses, police, and magistrates. Von Drehle shows how popular revulsion at the Triangle catastrophe led to an unprecedented alliance between idealistic labor reformers and the supremely pragmatic politicians of the Tammany machine.

David Von Drehle orchestrates these events into a drama rich in suspense and filled with memorable characters: the tight-fisted “shirtwaist kings” Max Blanck and Isaac Harris; Charles F. Murphy, the shrewd kingmaker of Tammany Hall; blue-blooded activists like Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan; and reformers Frances Perkins and Al Smith. Most powerfully, he puts a human face on the men and women who died on March 25. Triangle is an immensely moving account of the hardships of New York City life in the early part of the twentieth century, and how this event transformed politics and gave rise to urban liberalism.

I thought Von Drehle's book was a riveting version of the story, with particularly great details about how the Democratic Party evolved at the time from one that at first backed the factory bosses to one that supported the workers in their quest for safety, fair wages, and common human decency.

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