Non-Fiction: History


The Fire That Changed America

Written by: David Von Drehle

Published By: Published By: Grove Press

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            On March 25, 1911, tragedy struck New York City in the form of fire at a shirtwaist factory located on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street.  In as little as thirty minutes, fire devastated the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building taking 146 workers, mostly immigrant woman below the age of 25, with it.  They were either burned to death, asphyxiated or plunged eight to ten stories to their deaths.  The Triangle Waist Company fire was considered the worst workplace disaster to take place in New York City until the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.  How eerie is it that both dates contained the numbers 9-1-1 in them?

            I had first learned of the tragic story when I was very little, having seen the very ending of the movie The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal, starring Tom Bosley.  The movie was very loosely based on the horrific events of March 25, 1911.  Most dramatic for me, and something that stayed with me all these years, was watching people who believed that they had no choice, jumping to their deaths out of various windows in the factory.  For some reason, I had it in my mind that the fire took place in Chicago – so little is it discussed in history classes nowadays that I had no idea this took place in New York.  Now, almost thirty years later, I was compelled to learn all I could about this fire and so, I headed to the local Barnes and Noble to seek out a book on the subject.

            Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle does more than explore the events of that fateful day in March 1911.  It delves back into events that preceded the fire and those that immediately followed the fire.  Von Drehle gives us an idea of the atmosphere of the times.  Many garment factories were little more than sweatshops run out of tenement homes.  Workers often worked 100 hour weeks for very little pay and no benefits.  Often times small children were put to work assisting parents in the tedious labor.  Small organizations began to spring up encouraging the workers to fight for better working conditions.  These unions encouraged workers to go on strike and force their employers to increase wages and lower work hours.  Even the Triangle Waist Company, with its more modern conditions, fell victim to the unions, several shirtwaist employees hitting the picket lines in search of better pay and less hours.  Strikers were often met with violence by thugs hired by the employers.  They also were often arrested by the police who were under direct orders from powerful officials sympathetic to the business owners’ plight.  Only one year prior to the fire that devastated the factory, the largest strike of garment workers seeking better working conditions ended, with concessions made only to hours and wages and nothing done to increase workers’ safety.

            David Von Drehle is perhaps the first author to go into depth about the histories of those that perished in the fire of 1911.  Although not much is known about many of the victims, Drehle was able to piece various bits of information about some of the victims from various sources.  He gives us a glimpse as to what it might be like to be a young immigrant trying to make a decent living for themselves and their families at the Triangle Waist Company.  He sets the stage for the fire by giving the readers ideas of what employees were doing just prior to the blaze, taken from survivors’ accounts.  The details with which he describes the fire are incredible.  Because he has given the victims a face, the reader has a vested interest in these people and their outcomes.  As the fire rages through the factory, the reader’s heart quickens, feeling the adrenaline and fear of the factory workers as they search frantically for some sort of escape.  The reader will find himself enraged to discover the locked door on the Washington Place side of the ninth floor.  Heroes will be found in the least likely places.  Horror will overtake the reader when he reads the account of workers plunging to their deaths from a collapsing fire escape.  Even more terrible are the accounts of workers jumping out windows or desperately hurling themselves down elevator shafts.  Drehle brings the reader into the fire in such a way as to make it seem like it is happening in the present.  A 16-page photo insert in the book includes photos of the fire scene, a floor by floor mapping of the events of the fire, and pictures of people involved in the union strikes, courtroom case, and instances of workplace safety reform.

            In the final segments of the book, David Von Drehle discusses the aftermath of the fire, from the horrible experience of the families and friends seeking to identify the charred remains of their loved ones to the reforms that have changed the safety of the work place today.  He discusses the trial against the factory owners and reveals that this is not the first fire to have occurred at the factory, only the first one that occurred during working hours.  In fact, Von Drehle reveals that not only had the factory owners reaped the benefits of several fires prior to the one on March 25, 1911, but that they had purchased a great deal more fire insurance shortly before the fire that would take 146 lives. 

            Included in the book is a list of the dead, their injuries, and, where possible, who they were identified by.  Often times, relatives or friends were so badly burned that they could only be identified by a ring or style of clothing.  One woman was identified by the cork fillers in her battered shoes…another by a lock of hair.  To this date, six victims are still unidentified.  Triangle: The Fire That Changed America is the first book to attempt to offer a complete list of the dead as well as some details of their histories.

            Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle is an eye-opening book.  It makes me wonder why it is that the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire wasn’t discussed in detail in school.  This is an event that helped to bring about change in the work industry as we know it.  No longer would employers be allowed to force workers to work in unsafe conditions for little more than $2.00 a week.  Locked exit doors were no longer tolerated.  Sprinklers and fire-rated doors became a must in factories.  Unions grew to remarkable proportions.  The entire power structure of New York City eventually changed following the events after the Triangle Waist Company fire.  How sad that it is virtually unknown to most New Yorkers.  Kudos to David Von Drehle for his book, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, for bringing a piece of important history to the forefront and endeavoring to give his readers some understanding of just how important the event actually was to our future.


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