NEW YORK — For more than 90 years, a fire at a garment company that claimed 146 lives stood as the worst workplace disaster in this city’s history.
But outside of the metropolitan area and outside of the garment industry, the March 25, 1911, blaze at the Triangle Waist Co. — commonly called the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — has slipped to the status of historical footnote. Still, it’s an event that had a profound impact on American history, as author David Von Drehle argued in the recently published “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press).
“We’re still living in a world that was influenced significantly by this event 92 years ago in Greenwich Village,” Von Drehle said in a recent phone interview. “Every time you pay your Social Security tax every week and every time your mother or grandmother gets her check, you’re dealing with a law written by Robert Wagner, whose career was utterly changed and made by this fire.”
Von Drehle was referring to a man who, at the time of the fire was a Tammany Hall underling serving as a New York State senator. By the end of his career, Wagner had risen to become a U.S. senator, where he was a strong ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped pass many New Deal legislation packages.
Although the horror of the fire is what many people remember, Von Drehle said that it served as a turning point in the country’s industrial history.
“New York and the country had a very high tolerance for workplace deaths and disaster,” he said. “The Triangle fire became a pivotal moment in the history of the New York Democratic Party, which then led the way in reshaping the entire country.”
The fire convinced the sachems of Tammany Hall, then the political machine that controlled New York politics, that it had to support workers and advocate safer workplaces to keep power — and to continue the corrupt practices that enriched them.
The Triangle conflagration that tore through the eighth through 10th floors of the garment factory building that occupies what today is New York University’s Brown Building succeeded in catching the city’s attention because of its overwhelming horror and Von Drehle offers a vivid description of the grim events. About 50 victims trapped behind locked factory doors died of burns and smoke inhalation during the 30-minute blaze, about 20 fell to their deaths in an elevator shaft, about 20 died when a fire escape collapsed and more than 50 hurled themselves through windows onto Washington Place and Greene Street.“The bystanders saw something large and dark fall from one of the windows,” he wrote. “ ‘Someone’s in there all right,’ said a voice in the crowd. ‘He’s trying to save his best cloth.’ When the next bundle began falling, the onlookers realized that it was a human being.”
He writes in disturbing detail how the blaze started in a basket of fabric scraps on the eighth floor, and quickly spread by jumping to fabric piles and paper patterns.
“Burning wisps of cotton and tissue paper swirled around the room,” the book recalled. “Wherever these wispy torches touched down, they seeded fire.”
Von Drehle found many detailed accounts of the fire when he unearthed a copy of the transcript of the manslaughter trial of factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who were eventually acquitted of all charges. For years, the transcript had been believed lost.
The author also compiled the first complete list of the 146 people who died in the fire, including six who were never identified. The known dead, most of whom were women, ranged in age from 14 to 43.
The fire came at a time when waves of politically minded Eastern European immigrants were pouring into New York — workers from most of the city’s major shirtwaist factories, including the Triangle, had gone out on strike, demanding better wages. It was the confluence of the labor movement and the women’s rights movement, which enjoyed significant funding from wealthy New York matrons, that provided the powerful groundswell of outrage after the fire that eventually led to stronger workplace safety codes.
Von Drehle, a 42-year-old reporter for the Washington Post, said that he hadn’t learned of the Triangle disaster until the age of 30, when the native of a Denver suburb was stationed as a reporter in New York for the Miami Herald. He later lived in Greenwich Village and daily walked past the site of the fire. His curiosity was piqued and he went looking for a book on the fire, only to discover that none had been written since Leon Stein’s account 40 years ago. That prompted him to undertake the project.Although workplace conditions in the U.S. have improved greatly since 1911, Von Drehle said he worries that more Triangle-like disasters could be seen in the developing world. In November 2000, 50 workers at a Bangladesh knitwear factory died and 100 were hospitalized after they were trapped behind the plant’s locked gates during a blaze.
“The garment industry in Asia in particular is really at the same stage of development, it seems to me, that the American garment industry was in the period that I wrote about,” Von Drehle said. “It seems in a tragic sort of way that those countries are just utterly unable to learn from our example.”
Relatively wealthy, liberal-minded American reformers ultimately made the successful drive to improve conditions early in the last century, and Von Drehle said he looked at the current antisweatshop campaign on college campuses as a sign that could happen again.
Still, he acknowledged, reforming the world is no easy task: “Exactly how you make that mechanism work, for American consumers and the American government to force, say, China, to embrace workers’ safety is a question.”
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