The Triangle Book by David von Drehle’s is an account of March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York fire tragedy and its aftermath. This book gives a fitting description of social history. The company was the largest blouse factory in New York back then, and it had a hundred and forty six workers dead of whom the greatest percentage were women and a few male workers involved. This successful company belonged to Isaac Harris and Max Blank. It was the custom of these employers to check on the bags of their employee before they left the company. Von Drehle had the privilege to read the remaining transcript of the trial the owners of the factory, Isaac Harris and Max Blank. These two owners were not good employers by even the low standards of the time. The two owners were rich men, and when they looked at the faces of their workers they observed with rare exceptions some cogs in a profit making machine
The book starts with a short prologue that sets the stage for the tragedy that follows. Von Drehle provides a context explaining the political atmosphere back in those days. He explains how the political atmosphere was at the time where trade unions came together working to organize triangle factory. He continues to explain how workers from different parts of the country ended up being in New York. Most immigrants were young Jewish women from Eastern Europe and Catholic women from Italy. Von Drehle tells how women workers of burgeoning labor movement and suffragette movement intermingled. These women were underpaid and overworked. These young workers were independent, free thinking and resolute. The results of that intermingling led to an overwhelming clash of priorities between the poor immigrants with robust socialist politics and the elite of New York. In early days these women immigrants together with the allies from the wealthy progressive community, abandoned their jobs, activated a strike calling for better working conditions, reduction of working hours to fifty two hours a week and a union representation.
The main story as explained by the author starts with the labor unrest that was rampant in the city during that year prior to the fire. The workers said enough is enough to the living and working conditions which was characterized by over working, under payment and other determining factors. Strikes broke out and eventually, groups came together in one accord to support the strikers and a settlement of sort was reached.
Considering the fact that the book was targeting a great audience, he should have given some vital information on what could have prevented the fire. His comparison of the Triangle to New England factories does not make whole lot of sense. The constructions of these buildings are totally different. For the New England mills they were constructed next to a river and in case of fire break out they could easily siphon water. The mills again had large boilers that could power huge steam pumps.
The major characters who are directly involved in the tragedy, the factory owners, the workers who died, the workers who survived as well as the people who gave a helping hand are clearly described in the book. The report obtained from the joint relief committee gives extensive information of the workers.
The fire started on the eighth floor where it is believed that a cigarette filter tossed in a dry pile of cotton scraps might have caused the fire. In a span of five minutes or so the whole was in an unquenchable inferno. The fire flames quickly spread to the ninth and the tenth floors. Some victims fled for safety through the flames up to the roof while others rushed screaming taking the freight elevators. Some tried through the rickety but unfortunately it collapsed just before escaped the inferno. The manager tried desperately to open the locked eighth floor door but on the ninth floor there was no key. The trapped workers in the ninth floor pressed against the windows but the awaiting trucks below had short ladders and the nets were too weak to hold the bodies that plummeted on the streets.
Isaac Harris and Max Blank were indicated for multiple counts of manslaughter. These two owners had Max Steuer as their attorney. Although the proceedings lacked modern day media mayhem, public interest made it the era’s equivalent to O.J.Simpson trial. The author gives some substantial information about this legendary attorney. Steuer only represented clients who could afford to pay his significant amount of money. Steuer’s total fee for the Triangle case was twenty thousand dollars. These two had their money’s worth. The defendants were not found guilty, thanks to the attorney’s strategy and tactics. The general public was infuriated just as it was in the Simpson’s case.
At the back the book Von Drehle includes a whole list of victims of Triangle fire tragedy including twenty two year old Vincenza Benenti, Essie Bernstein and Ida Brodsky. These were young women who never lived to vote and enjoy many rights American women have today.
North country public radio. Book review:Triangle, The fire that changed America http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/17365/20110324/book-review-quot- triangle-the-fire-that-changed-america-quot-by-david-von-drehle 24th November 2013.