On March 25, 1911 at approximately 4:30 P.M., a fire began at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that would kill 146 personnel in less than fifteen minutes. This event is one of history’s finest examples of a tragedy that could have been easily avoided. The women employed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company worked under horrible conditions, which included nine hour work days, cramped working quarters, and low wages. Of particular terror was the fact that these women were unable to escape the building; the company managers had greedily locked the doors to prevent the workers from sneaking outside for breaks and stealing the garments that they manufactured. It was later found that the fire hoses in the building were not even properly maintained and proved useless in this emergency. As a result, many women were forced to jump from the eighth to tenth floors of the building to escape, and not one of them survived this fall. When the fire department finally arrived, they needed to navigate around piles of bodies to set up their equipment and start fighting the fire.
Although this was a tragic event which impacted many lives, some good came from it. The fire inspired the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which effectively promoted better conditions for women who work in sweatshops. In addition, it led to the implementation of legislation that would improve safety standards of many factories; among these requirements were open access to all exits and fire escapes and working firefighting equipment. If these legal requirements had been in place at the time of the fire, the lives of 146 women would have been spared.
David Von Drehle was inspired to write this book because he had heard about a similarly devastating fire in the Bronx that reminded him of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. In addition, he moved to a building that was coincidently located down the block from where the original fire had occurred. These two events inspired him to conduct research about the fire itself and how it led to changes in the way that laborers are treated in the United States. In this book, Von Drehle begins by explaining the terrible working conditions that existed in New York in 1911.
Although there were several unions fighting for worker’s rights, they were losing the battle. Too many recent immigrants and impoverished citizens were willing to work under these horrible conditions for unfair pay because they were desperate for any type of compensation. Fortunately the Triangle Shirtwaist incident convinced the masses about the important of labor unions and the women who died did not do so in vain. A lot of public attention surrounded this case, which encouraged politicians to take action and prevent the rights of workers. Fire code laws, factory inspection laws, and workers compensation all came to fruition as a result of this tragedy; the 146 workers who sacrificed their lives paved the way for the lives of workers across the country to dramatically improve for many years, which has continued into the present.
The thesis of this book is that the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company inspired social change that impacted workers across the United States. Those affected by this event worked to ensure that this would never happen again, and that workers would be able to obtain specific protections against their employers and feel less powerless. I believe that the book did an effective job of describing this historical event; Von Drehle made the reader understand the anger of New Yorkers towards Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, which made them seem like truly evil men. It is extremely important to understand and educate others about tragic events that have occurred in our history so they are not repeated. Von Drehle’s book is an excellent tool to educate the country’s youth about this event and the importance of worker’s rights and labor unions to check the power of employers and corporations.
- Von Drehle, D. (2004). Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. New York: Grove Press