Review ~ Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle

Posted July 15, 2010


On March 25, 1911, 146 people died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. 6 of them were never identified. Many of those dead died from jumping out of the windows fleeing the fire; jumping seemed better than being burned alive.

A woeful lack of fire inspections, fire safety equipment, locked doors, rescue ladders too short to reach upper floors, and other flagrant miscalculations led to the deaths. Unions, still in their infancy, had been striving for better pay & shorter hours, but often, far down the line on their lists of demands was safety. Besides, they still weren’t that effective on getting manufacturers to listen to them. When they called a strike, employers had millions of other immigrant workers eager to fill in as scabs.

Cheap manual laborers were a plenty in the early 1900’s. Every day ships were coming in from all over the world and they needed the work. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people were cattle. They were necessary to the manufacturers, but any worker would do. The real problem was society. The workers had no voice because they had no political pull and no money to get that political pull. They. Didn’t. Matter.

After the Triangle fire, many people from other areas of society were finally made aware of the plight of the lowly worker. Politicians, especially Tammany Hall, took notice as well, because the workers could represent a rather large voting block if they came to their aid. Within 2 years Legislation had been passed addressing fire safety, including automatic sprinklers, fire drills, women and children were given new protections, and the amazing 54-hour-work-week –bill.

While everyone was still out for blood, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were tried for one of the deaths on the day of the fire. The trial work and evidence was fairly sloppy and they were acquitted. Still, the rest of the workers of New York really reaped the benefits of the changes that the fire started. Stronger unions and stronger laws protecting buildings, owners, & ultimately the workers won. Oh, but at what a price. 146 dead, 6 with no name to this day.

This book was interesting because it wasn’t just a play-by-play of the fire. The first portion talks about the strikes in the garment industry just prior to the fire. It sets the stage, you might say, for what they were fighting for and what was to come.

Personally, I tend to be anti-union, but this taught me that they did and do have their time and place. They aren’t all about money and better pay, they fight for decency, safety, and a level playing field. If only they had been able to fight a bit longer in the garment worker strikes of 1910 & 1911, 146 people might not have died. If only manufacturers had gotten their money grubbing heads out of the asses a bit faster and stopped treating their workers like cattle, 146 people might not have died.

The fire brought on a whole new wave in government called the Progressive Movement. FDR became a progressive at this time and later, his New Deal was a completely Progressive plan.

Interesting read, not just about the fire, but the beginning labor struggles in our country. I will warn you, the beginning was a bit slow for me. There was quite a bit of information about the strikes prior to getting into the actual fire. It was important though to see the bigger picture of just how much a catalyst those 146 lives were.

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle

  • Paperback: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (August 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080214151X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802141514
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    Tags: American History, Nonfiction, Reviews

    7 Responses to “Review ~ Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle”

    1. This sounds like a super interesting book. I would like to read more about the labor movement in the U.S. I feel like it's really relevant even today. I'm on the fence about unions. It's clear that sometimes they go to far in what they are able to negotiate for the workers and it has clearly become a business in itself which I don't think was the original purpose. However, I really like them because they do fight for safety, fair wages, and proper working hours. Having worked in an industry that has both organized labor (nurses) and unorganized (lab), I realized that nurses get a much fairer deal than lab people do which is frustrating. They get treated better overall and are paid WAY better. So, I do think they continue to have their place in society even today. Corporations will always be greedy and there has to be some balance of power (and pssst….don't tell anyone. I have a business degree and think this).

      I will put this on my TBR list. Thanks for the fantastic review!

    2. You're right, it is still relevant in a lot of ways today. There are still many industries that use sweatshops or take advantage of workers. On the other hand, it seems like some unions expect, no make that demand, quite a lot. I only have an outsiders view though.

      It is funny, my boyfriend has worked in the grocery industry for years and is very pro-union. It is the only subject that we can not talk about.

    3. Oh I definitely think they go overboard sometimes. The auto industry is a perfect example of that. While I believe workers need representation, the company is in business to make a profit. However, it's a double edged sword because the auto industry made REALLY poor choices which contributed to their financial problems so I don't believe it was unions that broke their back.

      It's definitely an interesting discussion–I admit that I don't know enough about it which is why I would like to read more on the topic.

    4. Stylestruggler

      Thanks! Had never heard of this fire and it makes sense that it would have been a defining moment for industry in this country.
      I'm not a huge union fan; my only real exposure to one was at British Airways where they went far beyond fair treatment and safety issues. I would never advocate getting rid of unions altogether, but when they go on strike because they don't like the wages and benefits being offered to new recruits (who presumably join because they want to work there), it seems a little daft.

    5. Interesting book. Whenever I teach this topic in my history classes, my students are floored. They have a hard time accepting that people (workers) didn't always have the rights/protections that they have now. Granted, some companies still take advantage of workers and people tend to be leery of unions but without the protests/deaths/strikes of the early labor leaders, things could be a lot harder.

    6. I can imagine just how shocking it is to kids now. So many of the protections have grown a lot just in my lifetime. The victims in this fire were martyrs in a way. It took those deaths to get the government and the larger businesses to realize what was going on and that they had to do something.

      My parents liked to shock me as a kid by telling me what their minimum wage was when they started working. I think they got paid about $1.50 an hour. Yes, things were cheaper and all that, but comparing the $1.50 and what is it now? $8 something. That is a huge difference.

    7. This book made clear to me the need for unions at the time, but I am still pretty anti-union in the now.

      The only inside view I have of unions is with Art and the Grocers. Nowadays the contracts are so screwed that you are better off working somewhere else if you are just starting. Boyo, the people that were there before the strike are still in like flin, making tripple time on sundays and the whole nine yards.

      When I started there, they wanted to pay me the absolute minimum wage and I had to pay weekly union dues on top of that. The kicker was that I would get any benefits at all for the first year after paying all of that money. I could get paid more and get benefits inside of 3 month at most other jobs. Now the only people that they can get to fill the lower starting positions are freaky flaky people that can't get hired anywhere else or seniors.

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