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 it occurred and why the disaster had such an impact on American politics.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1240 words.)

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