Triangle fire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Sep 14 08:34:22 MDT 2003

American History
Death Trap
'Triangle: The Fire That Changed America' by David Von Drehle
Reviewed by Joshua B. Freeman
Sunday, September 14, 2003; Page BW06

The Fire That Changed America
By David Von Drehle
Atlantic Monthly. 340 pp. $25

The 1911 Triangle fire is America's best-known industrial disaster. In
spite of the countless mine cave-ins, ship explosions, refinery and factory
fires, and building collapses that have marked our industrial history, it
is the only workplace accident many people can name. The fire stands out
for the sheer magnitude of its carnage, in which 146 garment workers died,
and for the poignancy of its victims -- many of whom were little more than
children, teenage girls as young as 14, working to support their families.
Also, there is something particularly horrifying about the way in which
many of the victims died; more than a third jumped or fell from upper-story
windows, trying to escape flames. The terrible image of Triangle workers
plummeting through space was recalled by some who watched bodies tumble out
of the World Trade Center two years ago.

Over the years, there have been at least one film about the Triangle fire,
two poetry books, a published collection of documents, a Web site and at
least 10 children's books (three fiction), with another forthcoming. Yet
until now there had been only one full-length study of the calamity, Leon
Stein's The Triangle Fire, published in 1962. Washington Post reporter
David Von Drehle, building on Stein's work and subsequent scholarship, and
using his journalistic skills to ferret out additional information,
provides a fine new account in Triangle.

Though sometimes characterized as a sweatshop, the Triangle Waist Company
little resembled the small, tenement workshops to which that term
originally referred. Situated on the top three floors of a relatively new,
10-story loft building, the company was New York's largest manufacturer of
shirtwaists, the wildly popular blouses that paved the way for the mass
marketing of fashionable clothes. But like the sweatshops, Triangle hired
almost exclusively immigrant workers, primarily young Jewish and Italian
women, made them work long hours and paid them poorly.

In 1909, tens of thousands of young female garment workers walked off their
jobs, in an industry-wide strike that helped establish the International
Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. The Triangle Waist Company was one of the
first companies struck. Its owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, organized
the larger manufacturers to resist the union, enabling them to get their
employees back to work under a compromise that improved wages and shortened
hours but did not recognize the union. Blanck and Harris's single-minded
devotion to the bottom line, evident in their use of thugs to beat
strikers, also led them to crowd workers into their shop and skimp on fire
prevention measures.


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