“Triangle the Fire That Changed America” What would you do if you discovered the truth behind the series of lawsand regulations we abide by today? A wise, influential scientist by the name ofIsaac Newton once stated, “For every action, there is an equal and oppositereaction.
” In the late 1900’s, business owners made it a common practice toclose the doors to factory exits and stairwells. This to them was an efficientmeans of reducing thefts as well as averting workers from taking warrantless breaks.In this review, the reader will see how mere meaningless acts change thehistory of America itself in many ways.
In David von Drehle’s detailed 1stedition book “Triangle the Fire That Changed America”, readers gain greatknowledge of what it was like to live and work in the early 1900’s. From nosafety measures in work areas to the up rise of various labor unions in NewYork City, the reader captures the journey through the mind of an averageAmerican during such a vile period. Von Drehle constructs his work throughouthis book in such a manner that an average reader would be able to produceimages in the mind vividly of what the events that took place in America werelike leading up to and after March 25,1911. From the strike, to the fire andthe proceedings that followed the reader receives a bird’s eye view. Altogether, the author stresseshow America particularly New York City was an awful place to reside at thistime. From filthy housing to unsafe workplaces these atrocious conditions arehighlighted throughout the book. Moreover, the reader sees throughout the bookthat long before the horrific Triangle shirtwaist factory fire: garment workerswould make efforts to improve the awful conditions they were working under. Infact, many would go on brief strikes or simply walk off the job.
First, in chapter one the readeris introduced to a man known as Charles Rose. Mr. Rose was one of the many menduring this period who were against the advancement of equality for women.
Hestarts off by expressing how “he had been hired to beat up a young woman. Heroffense: leading a strike at a blouse making factory off Fifth Avenue justnorth of Washington Square in Manhattan.” (Drehle, page 6) This all takes placeon September 10, 1909. All in all, the reader sees that workers had beenprotesting and conducting strikes two years before the triangle shirtwaistfire. Additionally in chapter one, we meet Clara Lemlich a draper at LouisLeiserson’s shirt waist factory who gives her overview of what it was likeworking in such an unbearable condition. “Workers in the waist factories sheonce said were trailed to the bathroom and hustled back to work: they wereconstantly shortchanged on their pay and mocked when they complained; theowners shaved minutes off each end of the lunch hour and even “fixed” the timeclocks to stretch the workday.” (Drehle, page 7) Nonetheless these were just afew of the many things factor workers had to undergo.
The author also uses Mrs.Lemlich to express what leaving such a dreadful workplace was like at the endof the day. Mrs.
Lemlich mentions how factory workers would have to line up ina single file at a “single” exit where she alongside her factory workers wouldbe searched like thieves in order to prevent the theft of a few pieces of ablouse or a bit of lace. (Drehle, Page 7) Apart from having to deal with poorpresent working conditions, workers would have to undergo searches upon theirdeparture from these factories. Age did not matter, young to old all workerswere searched.
Of course, working and being vulgarly insultedat the end of each day led to the rise of the workers union. The InternationalLadies Garment Worker Union were one of the many that formed in 1906. Theauthor later shows another factor that led up to the up rise of various workersunions by stating “Late summer in those days was almost unbearable for the poorin New York City” (Drehle, page 12) People were suffering because they had nojobs, while those who did have jobs were being underpaid. Workers earned”training wages”, this resulted in them making as little as three dollars per week.People were unable to cover the cost of their living conditions.
(Drehle, page15) The conditions people had to live in were simply inhumane. From insufficient plumbing to airpollution exposures such as baking garbage, cement and more; the conditionswere just deplorable. These were just few of the many conditions they had toface. The author shows how people had to be packed up like sardines in livingsettlements known as tenements where there was “So many people in so littlespace: eight hundred per acre in some city blocks.” (Drehle page 13) People hadno choice but to sleep on rooftops, fire escapes, concrete stoops or simply inthe park, sometimes while those who slept in would sleep on chairs, doorsremoved from the hinges and pallets. In fact, the air in the city was so dirtythat a white tablecloth would change color in a day or two by an open window.
Despite these conditions many tried to be hygienic in whatever way they could. Von Drehle makes sure the readersget a clear visual of what the conditions were like leading up to the TriangleFactory fire. “Isaac Harris’s sister, Eva, was running toward him shouting,”Fire! There is a fire, Mr. Bernstein!” This was not the first time he hadheard those words.” (Drehle, page 5) Fires were an occasional thing in thefactory during working hours.
In addition to this a lot of the materials kepton the tables and bins were flammable. “Dangling from a wire over the tablewere tissue paper patterns, edged in steel. Fabric, paper, wooden tables: Thesteel trim was the only thing in the vicinity that was not highlyflammable.”(Drehle, page 118) A workplace disaster had always been in themaking, it was inevitable.
All in all when the fire did happen however, it washorrendous. A central switchboard delays news of the fire throughout the wholebuilding “The way the triangle’s phone system was rigged, all calls had to gothrough the switchboard.” (Drehle, page 121) Workers tried to out the fire butthere was “No Pressure, no water. ” (Page 121) The hose simply did not work, inaddition to this the doors were locked. Von Drehle shows how this is what itwas like for the workers in such a frightful situation. He shows how helplessthese people were leading up to their leaps toward death on March 25, 1911. Lastly the author shows throughout the book, situations where lawofficers and public officials would be bias to the situation at stake and takethe sides of the wealthy business owners by stating that they followedregulations making them unaccountable for the disastrous event that took place.
Nonetheless, justice was partially served and they were charged withManslaughter for the great loss of life. For the most part the workers effortsto make change did not go in vain, their conditions did get better overtime butthey were still odious. Towards the end Von Drehle shows how the state of NewYork passes a series of proposal for the assurance of workers safety. David Von Drehle’s book showshow the America we know today has progressed immensely. The America we live in todayis nothing like what it used to be.
He brings awareness through the vividdescriptions throughout his book of such a dire period leaving readers withnothing but appreciation for the law and regulations we have to abide by today. Things go wrong in order for you toappreciate them when they go right.