Triangle Summary

Triangle is a nonfiction book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 people in New York City in 1911.

  • Author David Von Drehle chronicles the history of the garment industry and the Triangle factory, as well as the shirtwaist strike of 1909.
  • Von Drehle also tells the stories of the Triangle factory’s workers, mostly young Eastern European Jewish and Italian women who had immigrated to the United States.
  • After describing the day of the fire in detail, Von Drehle recounts its aftermath, including the trial of the factory’s owners and the disaster’s significant political impact.

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Last Updated on August 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York’s history until 9/11, killing 146 people on March 25th, 1911. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle chronicles the years before, during, and after the fire, establishing the political and social environment in which...

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York’s history until 9/11, killing 146 people on March 25th, 1911. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle chronicles the years before, during, and after the fire, establishing the political and social environment in which it occurred and why the disaster had such an impact on American politics.

The earlier chapters deal with the events leading up to the Triangle disaster. The final decades of the nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of the garment industry, attracting immigrant workers from around the world at an unprecedented rate. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was established in 1900 by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who moved into the Asch Building at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street in 1902. At the time of the fire, they occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was the largest blouse-making operation in New York City. Von Drehle points out that the company had a history of collecting insurance after fires in their factories and that these often occurred outside of working hours and as the slow season approached.

Most of the Triangle workers were Eastern European Jewish women who had migrated to the United States to escape the growing anti-Semitic violence in their home countries. These women were more politically active and likely to join unions than Italian women, who dominated the remainder of the workforce. In the early twentieth century, the progressivism movement—which promoted women’s suffrage and encouraged workers to organize into unions—was building momentum, and various factory workers across New York went on strike in 1909. In the last few months of that year, a general strike occurred among the shirtwaist workers, including the employees of the Triangle factory. After months of striking and negotiation, the Triangle’s owners, Blanck and Harris, agreed to better working conditions, reduced hours, and better pay but resisted a closed shop system, recognizing the union in name only.

The Triangle fire occurred on March 25th, 1911, just over a year after the general strike ended. It started at around 4:40 p.m., closing time on a Saturday, with the first alarm being raised at 4:45 p.m. Originating from an unextinguished cigarette or match thrown into a scrap bin under one of the eighth-floor cutting tables, the fire spread rapidly due to the volume of light, flammable cotton and lawn (thin paper-like fabric) which was present in the factory. People rushed to the exits, and workers piled up at both the Washington Place and Greene Street doors, although the former required unlocking. Samuel Bernstein, the factory manager, tried to evacuate people from the loft as quickly as possible and returned to the upper floors in an attempt to warn people of the fire and rush them out of the blaze. When he arrived at the ninth floor, it was already consumed by flames, and he helped to carry tenth-floor workers through the fire to the safety of the roof.

Due to the switchboard design, the ninth-floor workers were not warned of the fire, which quickly spread through the rear windows. Like the eighth-floor Washington Place doors, the ninth-floor side was locked but could not be opened by workers. The roof and the elevators were the only two escape routes available and rapidly became impassable. Those who were trapped in the loft burned or jumped to their deaths, either out of the windows or down the elevator shaft. Workers who had made it onto the fire escape quickly realized that they could not move forward or backward, due to the number of people on the narrow structure. Doors to lower floors became stuck, and the lowest landing led to an enclosed basement roof with no access to the street outside. Those who didn’t make it into the lower building in time died when the fire escape collapsed under the heat and weight.

Blanck and Harris were both in the building, on the tenth floor, along with their young daughters and several relatives. When they were warned of the fire, Blanck was paralyzed by indecision, but Harris shouted at workers to go up to the roof. The tenth floor was evacuated quickly, and some of those who made it to the roof had escaped from the ninth floor when they realized that the route downstairs was blocked by fire. On the roof, they found themselves surrounded by taller buildings and were rescued by New York University law students next door, who lowered a ladder and pulled survivors to safety.

Elevator operators Joseph Zito and Gaspar Mortillalo made several dangerous trips to the upper floors, filling their elevators cars to near double capacity and saving approximately half of the total survivors. By the time the fire department arrived and began to douse the fire with hoses, the blaze had spread across all three lofts and forced many people away from the exits. New Yorkers watched as Triangle employees jumped from windows to the sidewalk below. Despite the fire department’s best efforts to save those who jumped, it quickly became clear that life nets were futile. The last person jumped at 4:57 p.m., and by 5:15 p.m. the fire was under control.

After the fire, the public demanded some form of justice for the lives lost. District Attorney Charles Whitman decided to prosecute Blanck and Harris for the death of Margaret Schwartz. The prosecution argued that, had the ninth-floor Washington Place door not been locked, Schwartz would not have died. However, the judge instructed the jury that they must find evidence that the owners knew that the door was locked “at that specific time on that specific day,” making it “practically impossible” for Blanck and Harris to be convicted. The owners were acquitted and collected insurance on the disaster, amounting to “more than four hundred dollars per dead worker.”

Despite the fact that no one was ever convicted for the Triangle Factory fire and that Blanck and Harris faced no legal repercussions for their lack of safety provisions in the factory, the disaster had wide-reaching political implications. The Factory Investigation Commission was set up by Tammany Hall members Al Smith and future senator Robert Wagner. It included figures such as future secretary of labor Frances Perkins, who, along with Wagner, went on to play an integral part in the Roosevelt administration, and “both of them knew exactly where the New Deal was rooted.” In the years after the fire, the commission pushed for a great number of labor laws that improved workplace conditions and protected workers from inconsiderate business owners.

At the end of the book, Von Drehle emphasizes the impact that the fire had on the makeup of urban liberalism and the Democratic Party. In the early years of the twentieth century, New York politics was controlled by Tammany Hall, a political machine that resisted the growing progressivism movement and used thugs and the police to suppress striking workers. The central hub for the Democratic Party in New York, it had a reputation for dirty politics and corruption, offering gestures of “goodwill” in exchange for votes. However, the Triangle fire was clearly an important issue for new immigrants, who made up a great deal of the workforce and held no loyalty to Tammany. Murphy recognized the importance of appealing to these potential voters, and in only a few years the Democratic Party became America’s progressive party, representative of the working class.

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