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Triangle: The Fire That Changed America [Kindle Edition]

David von Drehle
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (129 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations

On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people—123 of them women. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City history.

This harrowing yet compulsively readable book is both a chronicle of the Triangle shirtwaist fire and a vibrant portrait of an entire age. It follows the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration that inundated New York in the early years of the century, filling its slums and supplying its garment factories with cheap, mostly female labor. It portrays the Dickensian work conditions that led to a massive waist-worker’s strike in which an unlikely coalition of socialists, socialites, and suffragettes took on bosses, police, and magistrates. Von Drehle shows how popular revulsion at the Triangle catastrophe led to an unprecedented alliance between idealistic labor reformers and the supremely pragmatic politicians of the Tammany machine.

David Von Drehle orchestrates these events into a drama rich in suspense and filled with memorable characters: the tight-fisted “shirtwaist kings” Max Blanck and Isaac Harris; Charles F. Murphy, the shrewd kingmaker of Tammany Hall; blue-blooded activists like Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan; and reformers Frances Perkins and Al Smith. Most powerfully, he puts a human face on the men and women who died on March 25. Triangle is an immensely moving account of the hardships of New York City life in the early part of the twentieth century, and how this event transformed politics and gave rise to urban liberalism.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It was a profitable business in a modern fireproof building heralded as a model of efficiency. Yet the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City became the deadliest workplace in American history when fire broke out on the premises on March 25, 1911. Within about 15 minutes the blaze killed 146 workers-most of them immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their teens and early 20s. Though most workers on the eighth and 10th floors escaped, those on the ninth floor were trapped behind a locked exit door. As the inferno spread, the trapped workers either burned to death inside the building or jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below. Journalist Von Drehle (Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row and Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election) recounts the disaster-the worst in New York City until September 11, 2001-in passionate detail. He explains the sociopolitical context in which the fire occurred and the subsequent successful push for industry reforms, but is at his best in his moment-by-moment account of the fire. He describes heaps of bodies on the sidewalk, rows of coffins at the makeshift morgue where relatives identified charred bodies by jewelry or other items, and the scandalous manslaughter trial at which the Triangle owners were acquitted of all charges stemming from the deaths. Von Drehle's engrossing account, which emphasizes the humanity of the victims and the theme of social justice, brings one of the pivotal and most shocking episodes of American labor history to life. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Von Drehle has embedded the intense, moving tale of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a fascinating, meticulously documented account of a crucial period in U.S. history. In addition to using an impressive list of secondary sources, the author has drawn heavily on newspaper articles, author Leon Stine's interviews with survivors, and trial transcripts. In a short prologue, he provides a poignant account of stunned, grieving relatives trying to identify burned bodies. To show why the tragedy occurred, he then goes back two years to the beginning of the 1909 general strike. The stifling, dingy tenements and the horrific conditions of the factories where immigrant workers toiled for 84-hour workweeks are described in evocative detail. Stories of the hardships they left behind in Italy and Eastern Europe contribute to the portraits of the victims and villains. Readers unfamiliar with Tammany Hall, the Progressive movement, or the rise of trade unions benefit from clear, concise background information. The account of the fire, the investigation, and the trial are both heartbreaking and enraging. The courtroom drama of defense attorney Max Steuer brazenly defending the factory owners overshadows any modern comparison. After concluding with the announcement of the trial verdict, the author provides an epilogue covering the final years of the key figures. An appendix gives the first complete list of victims. Eight black-and-white photos are included.
Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 647 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; Reprint edition (August 16, 2004)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004RPY48I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #212,436 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
110 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the author December 22, 2003
Format:Hardcover
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
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62 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Caused the Fire, and What the Fire Caused September 22, 2003
Format:Hardcover
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.
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From Fire to Reform October 24, 2003
Format:Hardcover
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.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
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.
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