116 of 118 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2003
Richard Peladeau has leapt to a mistaken conclusion in his review of my book.
The young woman he mentions in his review, Rosie Freedman, did, in fact, die in the fire, and her life story is an important part of "Triangle." She was born in Bialystok, Poland, in the early 1890s. In 1906--as a young teenager--she survived one of the deadliest pogroms in Russian history. Her family then sent her, alone, across Europe to board a steamship for the crossing to New York. After clearing Ellis Island, she went to live with an aunt and uncle who were already in New York. It's likely she had never met them.
At age 14, Rosie managed to earn enough in the garment factories to pay her room and board, cover her expenses, and send money home to support the family she left behind.
Rosie Freedman died in the Triangle fire, on March 25, 1911.
About 350 workers survived that fire. One was a teenager named Rose Rosenfeld. Years later, she married a man named Freedman, and Rose Rosenfeld became Rose Freedman. Mr. Peladeau is correct that Rose Rosenfeld-Freedman lived to the age of 107, and was the longest-lived survivor of the fire.
This is all explained in the end notes of "Triangle." Mr. Peladeau is wrong. These are two entirely different people. This is not a major mistake--in fact, as other reviewers have noted, "Triangle" contains more information about the lives of the Triangle factory workers than any previous book on this subject.
--David Von Drehle
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Before 11 September 2001, the worst workplace disaster in New York City was the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village on 25 March 1911. As recounted in a riveting history, _Triangle: The Fire That Changed America_ (Atlantic Monthly Press) by David Von Drehle, the fire was caused not just by a careless cigarette, but by social, industrial, and labor forces summed to that point, and true to the subtitle, it changed those forces ever afterward. Anyone studying the economics and history of twentieth century America needs to know the prominence of the sweatshops, but as Von Drehle points out, we are now once again concerned about the sweatshops from where our clothes issue (they just don't happen to predominate in New York anymore). And though after Triangle there were important safety laws imposed in New York, there are still factory disasters happening in the equivalent of sweatshops in other parts of the world.
Ironically, the Triangle factory made shirtwaists, which were the women's blouses of the time, and they were something of a sartorial liberation for women. It was a practical garment, with no hoops or corsets, and yet it was fashionable enough for the Gibson Girl. The book covers the lengthy strike at Triangle of 1909, but the strike was not about safety, just hours and pay. Von Drehle shows that there had already been factory buildings successfully protected from fire. Automatic sprinklers, firewalls, and fireproof doors and stairways were, from the 1880s, standard in some factories. The Triangle owners paid lots for insurance, and little for safety. The building itself was promoted as fireproof, and it proved essentially to be, but the contents were certainly not. There were about 250 workers in the building, and as they attempted to escape, each fire hazard took its toll. A door to the rear stairway was locked, for instance, because the owners insisted that workers use only one stairway. This ensured that before leaving the building, everyone could be checked for goods smuggled out. Crowds mobbed shut other doors which opened inwards. The account of the fire is vivid and scary. 140 people died in the fire, 123 of them women. About a hundred of the deaths were those who fell or jumped.
The owners were tried for manslaughter. Van Drehle has uncovered a lost transcript of the trial, which focused on the locked doors. On the stand, one of the owners stressed the importance of having the door locked to prevent theft, but when pressed to state how much loss there had been to theft, he admitted that it was less than $25 a year. The owners were deemed not guilty, and gained $60,000 in insurance payments. The resulting public outcry provided a new impetus for workplace safety, creating rules that are in force even today, like the ones requiring outward swinging doors. Van Drehle shows that even more importantly, it began to be taken for granted that a progressive government ought to be regulating such matters. Tammany Hall came around to protecting the workers, and from this change grew such philosophies as the New Deal. _Triangle_ compellingly tells the story of the building's fire, but even better, it covers the stories of the women workers involved in the disaster, and the changes the fire brought. The fire lasted a horrific ten minutes in 1911, but it has not finished burning yet.
41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2003
I normally avoid books that focus on horrific events in history because they mostly exploit and sensationalize the disaster for their authors' obvious motive: profit. David Von Drehle has no interest in exploiting this exceptionally terrible moment in New York's--and even America's--history. His compassion for the victims, his admiration for the reformers, and his loathing for those who caused and profited from the fire is obvious on every page, and in every word.
Framed by the scorn and indifference toward laborers before the fire, and the realization of guilt that led to the rush to reform after it, the events of March 25, 1911 are heartbreakingly described by Mr. Von Drehle's vivid prose. But the description of the actual fire is only part of the book. He doesn't linger over the gruesome details to satisfy some cruel, voyeuristic hunger that some readers might have expected. There's just enough narrative to convey the chaos, terror and sadness of the event. To prevent the story from getting too morbid, the author diligently included the many individual acts of heroism by police, firemen, passersby and neighboring NYU students.
The main purpose of the book, as the subtitle explains, is to demonstrate how the Triangle catastrophe profoundly affected Tammany Hall, New York City and State government, the federal governemt, the labor union movement, socialists, and Democrats. The dedication of the reformers and labor leaders like Al Smith, Frances Perkins, Robert Wagner, Sr., Clara Lemlich, and so on, is also highlighted. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, receive the vilification they deserve. And somewhere in the moral gray area are the two most enigmatic figures: Tammany leader Charles Murphy and the attorney for Blanck and Harris, Max Steuer.
One last note: the book is a fascinating history of the history of the disaster. By that I mean that Mr. Von Drehle reports how others before him--the newspapers, Attorney Steuer, Clara Lemlich, and Leon Stein--recounted the events of that dark day, and how frighteningly close we came to losing these records (especially Steuer's). It represents the debt we owe to Mr. Von Drehle's dogged research, as well as the debt he owes his predecessors. Amazing.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2003
David Von Drehle's "Triangle" is social history at its best. He re-examines this tragic event, which had been relocated to a footnote in history, and places it in a broad historical context. He minimizes the sensational aspects of the tragedy and fully illuminates the social conditions that led to it, as well as workplace and political changes that flowed from it. That is not to say, however, that he does not fully describe the horrors of the fire, the falling bodies, the charred remains or the quirks of fate that saved one victim and doomed another. In the central chapters of the book, his vigorous prose projects the reader right into the heart of the fire.
In the first part of the book, Von Drehle examines the victims of the fire that broke out shortly before quitting time at the Triangle Shirtwaist (i.e., blouse) factory on Saturday, March 25, 1911. Who were they? Why did the come to America? Why did they take factory jobs instead of domestic jobs? Where did they live? What did they wear? What did they do in their spare time? Von Drehle brings these people and their neighborhoods to life.
Nor does he ignore, or spare, the management. Immigrants and textile workers themselves, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had risen in the world and owned a series of factories, as they called these sweatshops. Von Drehle details the tactics they used to resistance to unions and break strikes. He describes some of their cost-saving practices (including cheating workers out of earned wages) and provides convincing evidence that they had a history of torching their own workshops at the end of the season to collect the insurance on unsold merchandise. If so, Von Drehle reasons that since the Triangle Fire occurred near the end of the season, Blanck and Harris might have been warehousing unsold garments at the Triangle shop, which would have added fuel and death to the conflagration. Locked doors, bins full of flammable material, insufficient water, a flimsy fire escape and non-existant fire procedures all added to the disaster. When we learn, in the last section of the book, that Blanck and Harris were brought to trial, but then acquitted, we feel righteous indignation along with the survivors and mourners of the victims.
Von Drehle's research is extensive; nothing seems to escape his attention. He describes the high-society women who gave emotional and financial support to strikers and then fell away after they realized the anti-capitalist sentiments of some of the leaders. He contrasts the social conditions of the immigrants from Eastern Europe (mainly Jewish) with those from Italy (mainly Catholic), conditions that these immigrants brought with them and that affected their responses to the union movement and to the workplace in general. And, he describes living conditions, including a concise explanation of a typical tenement.
The Appendix includes a list and brief description of each of the known victims, apparently the only complete list ever assembled. What a fitting memorial to these workers.
This is a engrossing read, well-written and authoritative.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
As a fire protection engineer, I have known about the technical aspects of the fire for a great many years. It is one of the first lessons taught to new students of the field and is held up as a lesson that needed to be learned and a fire that changed the course of fire protection in America. Despite the information, I wanted to learn more about the history of the fire, and found it in this well written book.
The author does an excellent job of presenting the terrible working and living conditions that were present in the Lower East side neighborhoods during the early part of the century. Weaving together stories of immigrant's lives with the political and social issues of the day creates a New York that can be felt and seen, which gives life to the story.
Although the author slips back into the nineteenth century several times for reference, the main story starts with the labor unrest that was racking the city during the year prior to the fire. People were fed up with bad living and working conditions, over work, and a host of other factors. Strikes broke out and were quelled by the Tammany Hall machine. Eventually, various groups came together to support the strikers and a settlement, of sorts, was reached.
The author builds until the day of the fire, and then moves onto to revealing the horrors that took place on the fateful day. Sadly, the author utilizes language to describe the fire that would be better suited for describing the riots. The fire was "explosive" and it was like a "fire bomb" in nature. Both of these have specific meanings, and they are not used to discuss fires in factories unless one or the other was actually used in the building. Certainly the growth of the fire was rapid; even logarithmic in growth, but that is common of many fires. The author's use of descriptive language regarding the fire is sensationalistic and unneeded. It is obvious that the author knows little about fire and never consulted with an expert while writing the book.
In addition, the author gave scant attention to what could have prevented the fire in the first place and then got some of the information so that it pained me to read it. The author compares the Triangle Company to factories in New England that were already using various fire prevention techniques and presents the history of the use of such equipment. While that may seem like a good idea, in fact it is like comparing apples with watermelons. The construction of the buildings was totally different, with the New England mills located next to rivers that could siphoned for water in the event of a fire. In addition, the mills had large boilers operating that could power huge steam pumps to provide the needed pressure. They were about 6 stories high at most, and were a full block in size. The Asch building, by comparison, was 10 stories tall and had no room for a large fire pump. It would have needed to rely on a roof tank for pressure for a sprinkler system. IT had one, which failed and the author makes no mention as to why.
A second protection feature that the author argues for were fire walls. The Asch building was a total of about 9000 square feet in size. Fire walls are rarely used to separate out areas of buildings under 10,000 feet in size. In addition the type of construction used to allow the Asch building to rise to 10 stories would not have been able to hold the weight of a real fire wall.
The author did hit on some things that needed to change: better exits, fire drills, better and safer fire escapes, but it is painfully obvious that the author knows little about fire and is more of a social commentator.
The book is good if you want a discussion of the social issues that resulted in the people being employed in the building and what New York was like at the time. Do not, however, think that you will learn accurate information about the fire itself.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
If you read this book...prepare to be shocked. Prepare to be outraged. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the ninth floor of a building in New York City. The eighth, ninth and tenth floors of this structure were home to a successful blouse-making firm, the Triangle Waist Company. In the panic and pandemonium that followed, 146 people, the majority of them young immigrant women, lost their lives. Some were burned to death; some jumped, even though they knew they would perish, to avoid the horror of the flames; others plunged down an elevator shaft or were killed when an overloaded fire escape collapsed. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York history until the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and author David Von Drehle brings these faceless victims back to life so that we realize the true magnitude of their loss.
This is a riverting work of narrative history that also places the events described in the larger context of the societal changes that followed. The Triangle fire came a little more than a year after a major labor uprising among the garment workers that marked an important elevation in their status. The story of this strike is one of the main themes leading up to the tragedy; the other is a picture of Tammany Hall, the machine that controlled New York politics for generations.
In the wake of the disaster, there was an outpouring of grief and sympathy and support for the survivors...and very real fears that the larger lessons of the disaster would be forgotten. Although a criminal trial against the Triangle's owners many not have produced the moral victory many had hoped, the strong currents of change flowing through society could not be stopped. Von Drehle documents how Tammany, realizing its survival was at stake, shifted from a force of reaction to a force of change. Although Tamany policeman had harassed and beaten participants in the 1909 strike, reformers and politicians, including Al Smith, Robert Wagner and Frances Perkins, would go on to accomplish significant reforms in workplace safety conditions--and with Tammany's backing. Ultimately, Von Drehle argues, this wave of change peaked with the rise of urban liberalism and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
In Von Drehle's gifted storytelling, the lost world of almost a century ago lives again. Read this book, and better understand how that world of yesterday shaped the one we live in today.--William C. Hall
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2006
The Triangle Waist Company Fire of March 25th 1911 was a horrific event that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. It was witnessed by thousands of people on a clear and sunny New York City spring day. These people saw workers trapped by vicious flames pressing them up against windows until the weight of their bodies forced them out smoking and burning as they fell the 100 feet to the pavement below. David Van Drehle does more than simply convey this nightmare event in all its gritty, grisly detail. He connects this event to its context and then explains its impact on American labor conditions.
There were several historical trends that converged; a growing woman's movement looking for a cause that even the richest women could champion, the increasing automation of garment manufacturing that caused the crowding of workers on factory floors many feet above the city streets, the role of machine politics in urban life that was sensitive to changing demographics and public sentiment. Van Drehle shows how the fire became a firestorm for the labor movement resulting in Tammany Hall shifting from oppressing workers to promoting and insuring through the landmark Factory Improvement Commission greatly improved working conditions in the State of New York.
This commission did more than simply push for changes in fire safety laws. It included protections for working women and children, tougher factory inspections and improved sanitation in bakeries. In addition to all that, the commission highlighted the roles and boosted the careers of three public figures that played landmark roles in urban politics over the next thirty years; Robert Wagner, Al Smith and Francis Perkins.
My only quibble is the number of pages spent on the manslaughter trial of the Triangle Waist company factory owners. Its very interesting reading and highlights the critical issue of whether one of the exits was locked by the owners in violation of health and safety codes. But the trial illuminated nothing about the legacy of the Triangle fire and could have been dealt with in a succinct couple pages.
That said, Van Drehle does a terrific job putting the reader on the 9th floor with the trapped workers and conveying the fear, panic and horror of those few deadly minutes. He also makes the workers come alive as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, workers, activists and most of all as people not just victims. He combines great history with great heart to produce a memorable, vivid and worthy book.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2003
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned for only a matter of minutes, but the embers of the fire that took hundreds of lives still smolder today. Around 4:30PM on March 25, 1911, the top three floors of a ten-story building at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets in New York City began to burn. Close to 500 women, mostly teenagers and young adults, occupied those floors. They were nearly all Jewish immigrants working nine and a half hours, Monday through Saturday, on piece goods for around $15 a week in wages. In fifteen minutes, 146 of the workers would be dead.
Seventy-nine years later to the day, Miami Herald reporter David Von Drehle was covering the story of another fire in New York City. A deranged man had firebombed a nightclub in the Bronx, killing 87 people. The coincidence of the date of the fires prompted some to be reminded of the Triangle fire. One year later Von Drehle would move to New York, living one block from the location of the factory. His curiosity now piqued, he began to learn details about the fire that altered the history of the labor movement in America. TRIANGLE: The Fire That Changed America is the product of that research. It is a powerful work of history made even more riveting by an author who writes of the event with a style that brings vibrant life to an event nearly a century past.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, a fierce battle was waged between workers and owners. Von Drehle begins his account of the fire with a portrayal of the squalid working conditions of trade's people in New York. Union organizers and workers fought a bitter struggle with owners in many industries. The Women's Trade Union League was a major participant in the battle. Despite their efforts, the owners held the upper hand. Thousands of immigrants, desperate for work at any wage, created a substantial pool of workers that undercut union efforts to organize. Workers had little bargaining power in March of 1911.
On the day of the fire, the factory workers were helpless to save themselves. Exit doors had been locked to prevent the girls from sneaking out on the fire escape to take a cigarette break. Other doors had been locked to prevent employees from leaving work with a purloined garment. Fire hoses that might have put out the fire in its nascent stage were rotten at the folds. Panic-stricken women jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor of the building, forcing arriving fire wagons to maneuver around the corpses. The victims, many of whom could not even be identified, were buried in a single grave. Nearly 100,000 New Yorkers attended the funeral.
What occurred after the fire serves to make the Triangle fire such a compelling historical event. One event --- the criminal trial of the factory owners --- served only to compound the Triangle tragedy. The other event --- public and government response to the fire --- meant that those who perished in the fire did not die in vain. The discussion of those events in TRIANGLE completes the historical saga in a riveting fashion.
Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the owners of the Triangle factory, were indicted for multiple counts of manslaughter. While the trial lacked the modern elements of media mayhem, the public interest in the proceedings made it the era's equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial. Harris and Blanck retained Max Steuer as their attorney. While an excellent biography of Steuer remains to be written, Von Drehle gives the reader substantial information about the legendary New York trial attorney. Steuer is not as well known as another famous attorney of the era, Clarence Darrow, for one significant reason. Unlike Darrow, Steuer represented only those clients able to pay his significant fees. His fee for the Triangle fire was said to be $10,000 per man. Harris and Blanck got their money's worth. Through his strategy and tactics, both defendants were found not guilty. Just as in the Simpson case, the community was outraged. Although free men, Harris and Blanck had to be smuggled out of the courthouse in order to avoid facing the angry throng of spectators waiting outside.
While the verdict of acquittal stung the city of New York, the 146 victims of the Triangle fire did not die in vain. Out of the tragedy came fire-prevention legislation, factory inspection laws, workers' compensation acts, and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. David Von Drehle has captured the full meaning of the tragic events of March 25, 1911, and by his effort has created a lasting monument to those who perished on this sad day.
--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman from Bookreporter.com
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2006
I first read Leon Stein's "The Triangle Fire," which discusses the Fire and its aftermath. I made an excellent choice in von Drehle's book as a followup because of its depth of research and its discussion of factors leading up to the fire, including the strike that preceded it. Excellent parallels are drawn between the 1911 Fire and the 2001 WTC disaster, right down to the workers being able to look out the windows at a beautiful clear day, and realizing that with the fire directly behind them, their only choice is to jump. Heartbreaking, enraging and very educational. Then, as now, business emerges unscathed while the workers pay the price - the Triangle owners went back to work, were completely exonerated of their negligence and were paid for their "trouble."
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2003
David Von Drehle's TRIANGLE: THE FIRE THAT CHANGED AMERICA is an extraordinary example of story-telling and history at its very best. With his penetrating writing style and smart feel for detail, Von Drehle quickly draws you into the world of turn-of-the-last-centry New York City. Soon, you start caring deeply about the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, as you see what brought them to America and what they endured once they got here. Just as deft are the portraits of other key players -- from the factory owners and labor activists to the police, firefighters and politicians.
Most impressive and haunting, however, are Von Drehle's minute-by-minute, sometimes second-by-second, re-creation of the fire itself and its victims' desperate efforts to escape it. You'll find yourself feeling like you are in the building with the people you now know so well, thinking along with thme about what to do as the flames draw closer. It's an experience, given our own times, that will stay with you.
Byeond his superb story-stelling skills, Von Drehle shows an expert and confident touch in putting the fire in its dynamic historical context. Here we understand how Tammany Hall leaders grasped the opportunity to reinvent themselves and their oft-disgraced political machine into a champion of the immigrant working poor. And you'll learn how New York City political legends Robert Wagner and Al Smith crafted their powerful reform agenda and how the movement fed into FDR's New Deal.
Read this book and buy some copies for your friends and relatives. They will thank you.