Triangle : the fire that changed America

by Dave Von Drehle

Paperback, 2003




New York : Grove Press, c2003.


Describes the 1911 fire that destroyed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York's Greenwich Village, the deaths of 146 workers in the fire, and its implications for twentieth-century politics and labor relations.

User reviews

LibraryThing member tymfos
This is the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Fire of March, 1911, which killed 146 workers. It was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City history until Sept 11, 2011, when the massive loss of life in the World Trade Center dwarfed the Triangle's death toll. It was also a catalyst for groundbreaking regulations dealing with working conditions and workplace safety.

Author Von Drehle pieces together the details of the terrible fire clearly, and the reader gets a clear sense of the horror of the swift, deadly blaze. But every disaster, indeed every story, has a context -- and Von Drehle excels in explaining how this tragedy fit into the larger context of early 20th century New York. Immigration, the rise of unions, and the politics of Tammany Hall are all part of that context, and receive careful attention.

A fascinating story about a dreadful tragedy at a pivotal time in our nation's history.
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
This is one of the best history books I've read in quite a while. To understand the importance of the Triangle Waist Company fire in labor history, it is also important to understand the context in which it occurred. I hadn't realized how the rise and fall of Tammany Hall was so intimately tied in with a business and political climate that would permit a situation in which such a deadly fire could occur, and also with the reformist aftermath, which was instrumental in leading to New Deal policies. The story of the trial, and the political maneuvering leading up to it, was fascinating.

Von Drehle is a fine writer. The most moving chapter must be the one he calls, "Three Minutes", referring to the fact that had the alarm been sounded three minutes sooner, many lives might have been saved. His descriptions of how many of the workers died had me in tears. While it is very easy to pile horror on horror, von Drehle shows you the people, both the survivors and the lost. There is one extraordinary section of this chapter in which, after telling of the people standing in the windows "cry[ing] 'fire!' because what else was there to say?", and the fire ladders not tall enough, and the watchers below "their tiny hands . . . up, as if a gesture could hold the doomed workers forever in the mouth of a furnace" he then describes the view from the windows. "[T]he cool, clear air beyond the furnace; the gray-brown tracery of bare trees quilting Washington Square (faintly washed with the first whisper of new green) . . .the birds starting from nearby eaves and wheeling through the sky; the elegant campanile of the church on the square, and the pleasing aesthetic echoes of it in the two orange brick loft building that faced the Asch Building . . .one of the least decorated in the neighborhood, [it] featured miniature terra-cotta columns, fluted in the classical style, as dividers between the upper-floor windows. Workers were clinging to these decorations now."

In 1913, two years after the fire, the New York State legislature passed a series of fire safety laws, including requiring automatic sprinklers in high-rises, and unlocked doors. in the fall of 2003, 6 people died in a high-rise office building in Chicago. There were no automatic sprinklers, and the victims were trapped in a stairwell because the fire doors were locked.
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LibraryThing member Helcura
This book is about two thirds history of the New York Labor movement at the time of the fire, and one third actual details about the event. I found it interesting - the author tied the labor history information into the personal lives of some of the victims and I finally have a clue about Tammany Hall, which was just a "bad politics in history" thing to me before. The actual discussion of the fire was gripping, and the diagrams of the various factory floors really helped with visualizing what the workers had to contend with.

As usual, I wished there were more pictures of the people involved and I'd have liked a map of the area, but the account is impressively thorough, especially the first complete list of victims which the author culled from various published sources.

Worth reading.
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LibraryThing member drebbles
Extremely well researched and written "Triangle" is the story of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factor that killed 146 workers, most of them young women. David von Drehle not only writes about the fire, but the events leading up to the fire, including a prolonged strike by garment workers in 1909. The conditions the workers had to deal with are also described as well as the incredibly long work week (100 hours) for low wages which the owners tried to make even lower whenever they could. Von Drehle describes in great detail the fire, the workers attempts to escape the fire and the efforts of people both inside and outside the factory that struggled to save the victims. He also describes the aftermath of the fire and covers the owner's trial and whether or not they were convicted on any charges. Finally, he includes the first complete list of the fire victims and how they died.

I've wanted to learn more about the Triangle factory fire since I saw a TV movie about it in the late `70's. This book was very informative. The history parts were interesting and helped set the picture of what life was like at the time of the fire. The parts about the fire were hard to read at times not only because of the depictions of the victims dying but the memories it arose of September 11th as some victims were forced to jump from the ninth floor windows to escape the flames. The aftermath of the fire was also interesting, including what happened at the trial of the two owners of the Triangle. The list of the names of most of the victims (six were never identified) was compelling and makes readers realize the victims were mostly young women with the rest of their lives ahead of them. The list of victims is a perfect example of how well researched the entire book is - their names (and the various names misreported in the papers), ages, how they died, and who identified the bodies is listed.

Because of the subject matter, "Triangle" is at times a difficult read, but well worth it.
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LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
Fabulous account of the Triangle Fire and the immigrant women who worked and perished. I thought this was well researched and the women really came to life, they got under your skin and then you were with them during their last moments. A must read for quirky history buffs.
LibraryThing member queencersei
Triangle recounts the 1911 fire that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. 146 workers, mainly young women were killed. Up until 9/11 this had been the worst workplace death in U.S. History. As a direct result of this fire, several work place safety laws were passed. This novel not only recounts the devastation of the fire, but it also gives a wonderful glimpse into the lives of the women working class girls who were employed there. The novel is well researched and filled with many interesting historical details.… (more)
LibraryThing member schwager
This is a fabulous book on an important event in labor history. Von Dreshle has thoroughly researched this event and uses wonderful storytelling to bring the subject to life for the reader. He sets the story amid the political and social climate that contributed to the fire and trial outcome, making it a balanced story. Highly recommended!… (more)
LibraryThing member billgreer
Takes you back to sweatshop New York through a riveting story of a 1911 tragedy, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that trapped 123 young seamstresses and launched twentieth-century labor reform.
LibraryThing member mkboylan
Just finished Triangle the Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. Great book - got better as it went. Billed as a social history, it addresses the factory fire that killed 140 workers in NYC in 1911. I have a big hole in my knowledge about history when it comes to that era, so glad I read it. Addressed unions, suffragettes, Tammany Hall, told through the lives of these people and their involvement in these issues specifically around the fire, including a lookback at their home countries and reason for immigrating. In a different time, I might have perceived it as a success story about unions and worker safety, but here we are in 2011 continuing on with greedy politicians and corporations, dirty legal tricks, still sending people to die in unsafe mines, and destroying unions again. Too sad.… (more)
LibraryThing member plyon
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcmontgomery
I rarely recommend non-fiction as many have not only their own interests that may not be the same as yours, but you never know if they don't mind a dry read or if they mind someone who makes it read like a novel. Triangle is a happy medium for everyone. Not that it is an easy read. The tragedy it dissects is one that will break your heart.… (more)
LibraryThing member Marlene-NL
I thought it was an interesting read. Sad though. Not as good as i expected. maybe because i did not really care much about the politics.
Must guess when I finished it.
LibraryThing member TheInvernessie
As a re-read, even for a school essay, i found that this book is probably the definitive product of the Triangle Factory fire. After reading it for the second time, I truly feel the pain, suffering and frustration that surrounded this event. I adored the author's bringing in of the reality of the real people that were part of, and affected by this tragedy. Here's hoping I do well on this essay!… (more)
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
The book starts with an account of the garment workers' strike in New York City in 1909. Mostly immigrants were working in sweatshops to produce garments for very little money. Briefly during the strike, safety came up as a concern, but it wasn't the ultimate concern (working hours and wages were), so nothing was done.

Fast forward to 1911, and 146 people are killed when they cannot escape the 8th-10th floors of the building where the Triangle Waist Factory is. This book describes what happened on March 25, 1911, when people were scrambling for their lives to escape the fire. The owners of the factory were never held accountable, despite a locked door that trapped several workers.

There was only one thing that I lost interest in slightly while reading the book, and that was some of the politics that was happening in New York. Other than that, it is a fascinating account of what happened to those poor people, what led up to it, and the aftermath.
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LibraryThing member slug9000
I really enjoyed this book. I am a big fan of non-fiction, and I particularly enjoy books about specific events and their social/political/historical context. This book is exactly that. The first part of the book is largely dedicated to providing a brief history of Tammany Hall (the political machine that controlled New York at the time of the Triangle fire), the unregulated wild west of the burgeoning manufacturing sector, and the worker exploitation that led to significant labor unrest. The second part of the book is a series of accounts of the fire (both from employees, bystanders, journalists, and responders), and the third part of the book is the fallout from the fire (the lawsuit against the Triangle owners and a significant increase in worker protection laws).

The book is fascinating, and it is a good read, and it is well-written. I am deducting a star because the first parts of the book (in particular the details about the rise of Tammany Hall) felt a little bit like a slog. It wasn't bad or irrelevant information; it just didn't keep my interest entirely. The author does a good job portraying some of the relevant figures of the time (protesters, Tammany men, etc), although at times his portrayals seemed like one-dimensional caricatures and not a balanced overview of the individuals themselves.

Nonetheless, I loved this book and highly recommend it to readers of non-fiction.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
Beginning with a garment worker's strike and then moving onto the day the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames, the book tells the story of immigrant labor in unsafe conditions. The fire department could not reach building floors housing the factory. The fire escapes were flawed. Locked doors impeded exit for many. Some jumped to their deaths in efforts to escape the flames. The book goes on to detail the reforms brought about by the human tragedy and the trials of the plant's owners. The narrative holds the reader's attention. An annotated list of casualties appears before the "blind end notes." I hate blind end notes. Please number them so we know they exist!… (more)
LibraryThing member katiekrug
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women who were unable to escape the 8th and 9th floors. Some of them jumped from the factory's windows; some jumped down the elevator shaft; some burned a few feet from a door that was likely locked. I'd heard about this disaster and how it led to major labor reforms in the United States, but I knew little of the specifics. Von Drehle has written a solid history, which covers a major strike at the factory in 1909, conditions under which so many Eastern European immigrants came to the US, reform efforts before and after the fire, and the influence of the fire on American politics through the New Deal. Parts of the book are a bit dry, but the background stories of some of the major figures involved and of the victims is interesting, and the description of the fire itself is harrowing.

4 stars
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LibraryThing member cjordan916
Too dense. only got about 10% through
LibraryThing member foof2you
A look at the fire at the Triangle Waist Shirt factory the lives lost and the aftermath of the disaster. Many questions remain unanswered and in most case those questions will never be answered. Prior to 9/11 this was the worst loss of life in a building fire and some of the issues that happened during this fire would occur again during the 9/11 tragedy. Fireman unable to reach those on the higher floors, those unable to escape jumping rather burning, panic and confusion.… (more)
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
An excellent account of the fire that is one of the best known industrial accidents. The author takes you on a trip through the political and social world in which the fire occurred, including an explication of Tammany Hall, who played a large role both in the events that led up to the fire, and in the events that followed. The author attempts to recreate the world of some of these immigrants, both the world they came from and the world in which they were now living, but does not make up things to go beyond the information; you are aware at all times that he is simply recounting historical details in reference to the things that were driving the movement of the people from their home in other countries toward the culmination in the fire. So how did the fire change America? Perhaps a lot less than you might think.… (more)



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