“Triangle the Fire That Changed America”
What would you do if you discovered the truth behind the series of laws
and regulations we abide by today? A wise, influential scientist by the name of
Isaac Newton once stated, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite
reaction.” In the late 1900’s, business owners made it a common practice to
close the doors to factory exits and stairwells. This to them was an efficient
means of reducing thefts as well as averting workers from taking warrantless breaks.
In this review, the reader will see how mere meaningless acts change the
history of America itself in many ways.
In David von Drehle’s detailed 1st
edition book “Triangle the Fire That Changed America”, readers gain great
knowledge of what it was like to live and work in the early 1900’s. From no
safety measures in work areas to the up rise of various labor unions in New
York City, the reader captures the journey through the mind of an average
American during such a vile period. Von Drehle constructs his work throughout
his book in such a manner that an average reader would be able to produce
images in the mind vividly of what the events that took place in America were
like leading up to and after March 25,1911. From the strike, to the fire and
the proceedings that followed the reader receives a bird’s eye view.
Altogether, the author stresses
how America particularly New York City was an awful place to reside at this
time. From filthy housing to unsafe workplaces these atrocious conditions are
highlighted throughout the book. Moreover, the reader sees throughout the book
that long before the horrific Triangle shirtwaist factory fire: garment workers
would make efforts to improve the awful conditions they were working under. In
fact, many would go on brief strikes or simply walk off the job.
First, in chapter one the reader
is introduced to a man known as Charles Rose. Mr. Rose was one of the many men
during this period who were against the advancement of equality for women. He
starts off by expressing how “he had been hired to beat up a young woman. Her
offense: leading a strike at a blouse making factory off Fifth Avenue just
north of Washington Square in Manhattan.” (Drehle, page 6) This all takes place
on September 10, 1909. All in all, the reader sees that workers had been
protesting and conducting strikes two years before the triangle shirtwaist
fire. Additionally in chapter one, we meet Clara Lemlich a draper at Louis
Leiserson’s shirt waist factory who gives her overview of what it was like
working in such an unbearable condition. “Workers in the waist factories she
once said were trailed to the bathroom and hustled back to work: they were
constantly shortchanged on their pay and mocked when they complained; the
owners shaved minutes off each end of the lunch hour and even “fixed” the time
clocks to stretch the workday.” (Drehle, page 7) Nonetheless these were just a
few 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 end
of the day. Mrs. Lemlich mentions how factory workers would have to line up in
a single file at a “single” exit where she alongside her factory workers would
be searched like thieves in order to prevent the theft of a few pieces of a
blouse or a bit of lace. (Drehle, Page 7) Apart from having to deal with poor
present working conditions, workers would have to undergo searches upon their
departure from these factories. Age did not matter, young to old all workers
Of course, working and being vulgarly insulted
at the end of each day led to the rise of the workers union. The International
Ladies Garment Worker Union were one of the many that formed in 1906. The
author later shows another factor that led up to the up rise of various workers
unions by stating “Late summer in those days was almost unbearable for the poor
in New York City” (Drehle, page 12) People were suffering because they had no
jobs, 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, page
15) The conditions people had to live in were simply inhumane.
From insufficient plumbing to air
pollution exposures such as baking garbage, cement and more; the conditions
were just deplorable. These were just few of the many conditions they had to
face. The author shows how people had to be packed up like sardines in living
settlements known as tenements where there was “So many people in so little
space: eight hundred per acre in some city blocks.” (Drehle page 13) People had
no choice but to sleep on rooftops, fire escapes, concrete stoops or simply in
the park, sometimes while those who slept in would sleep on chairs, doors
removed from the hinges and pallets. In fact, the air in the city was so dirty
that 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 readers
get a clear visual of what the conditions were like leading up to the Triangle
Factory 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 had
heard those words.” (Drehle, page 5) Fires were an occasional thing in the
factory during working hours. In addition to this a lot of the materials kept
on the tables and bins were flammable. “Dangling from a wire over the table
were tissue paper patterns, edged in steel. Fabric, paper, wooden tables: The
steel trim was the only thing in the vicinity that was not highly
flammable.”(Drehle, page 118) A workplace disaster had always been in the
making, it was inevitable. All in all when the fire did happen however, it was
horrendous. A central switchboard delays news of the fire throughout the whole
building “The way the triangle’s phone system was rigged, all calls had to go
through the switchboard.” (Drehle, page 121) Workers tried to out the fire but
there was “No Pressure, no water. ” (Page 121) The hose simply did not work, in
addition to this the doors were locked. Von Drehle shows how this is what it
was like for the workers in such a frightful situation. He shows how helpless
these people were leading up to their leaps toward death on March 25, 1911.
Lastly the author shows throughout the book, situations where law
officers and public officials would be bias to the situation at stake and take
the sides of the wealthy business owners by stating that they followed
regulations making them unaccountable for the disastrous event that took place.
Nonetheless, justice was partially served and they were charged with
Manslaughter for the great loss of life. For the most part the workers efforts
to make change did not go in vain, their conditions did get better overtime but
they were still odious. Towards the end Von Drehle shows how the state of New
York passes a series of proposal for the assurance of workers safety.
David Von Drehle’s book shows
how the America we know today has progressed immensely. The America we live in today
is nothing like what it used to be. He brings awareness through the vivid
descriptions throughout his book of such a dire period leaving readers with
nothing but appreciation for the law and regulations we have to abide by today.
Things go wrong in order for you to
appreciate them when they go right.