Triangle:
the Fire that Changed America


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Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von DrehleIn Association with Amazon.com


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Book Description

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York's Greenwich Village. Within minutes it had spread to consume the building's upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren't tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their death. The final toll was 146 people -- 123 of them women. It was the worst disaster in New York City history. This harrowing yet compulsively readable book is both a chronicle of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and a vibrant portrait of an entire age. It follows the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration that inundated New York in the early years of the century, filling its slums and supplying its garment factories with cheap, mostly female labor. It portrays the Dickensian work conditions that led to a massive waist-worker's strike in which an unlikely coalition of socialists, socialites, and suffragettes took on bosses, police, and magistrates. Von Drehle shows how popular revulsion at the Triangle catastrophe led to an unprecedented alliance between idealistic labor reformers and the supremely pragmatic politicians of the Tammany machine.

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From Publishers Weekly
It was a profitable business in a modern fireproof building heralded as a model of efficiency. Yet the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City became the deadliest workplace in American history when fire broke out on the premises on March 25, 1911. Within about 15 minutes the blaze killed 146 workers-most of them immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their teens and early 20s. Though most workers on the eighth and 10th floors escaped, those on the ninth floor were trapped behind a locked exit door.

As the inferno spread, the trapped workers either burned to death inside the building or jumped to their deaths on the sidewalk below. Journalist Von Drehle (Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row and Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election) recounts the disaster-the worst in New York City until September 11, 2001-in passionate detail. He explains the sociopolitical context in which the fire occurred and the subsequent successful push for industry reforms, but is at his best in his moment-by-moment account of the fire. He describes heaps of bodies on the sidewalk, rows of coffins at the makeshift morgue where relatives identified charred bodies by jewelry or other items, and the scandalous manslaughter trial at which the Triangle owners were acquitted of all charges stemming from the deaths. Von Drehle's engrossing account, which emphasizes the humanity of the victims and the theme of social justice, brings one of the pivotal and most shocking episodes of American labor history to life. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 - this is copyrighted material

Burglary was the usual occupation of Lawrence Ferrone, also known as Charles Rose. He had twice done time for that offense in New York state prisons. But Charley Rose was not a finicky man. He worked where there was money to be made. On September 10, 1909, a Friday evening, Rose was employed on a mission that would make many men squeamish. He had been hired to beat up a young woman. Her offense: leading a strike at a blouse-making factory off Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square in Manhattan.

He spotted his mark as she left the picket line. Clara Lemlich was small, no more than five feet tall, but solidly built. She looked like a teenager, with her soft round face and blazing eyes, but in fact Lemlich was in her early twenties. She had curly hair that she wore pulled tight in the back and sharply parted on the right, in the rather masculine style that was popular among the fiery women and girls of the socialist movement. Some of Clara's comrades-Pauline Newman and Fania Cohn, for example, tireless labor organizers in the blouse and the underwear factories, respectively-wore their hair trimmed so short and plain that they could almost pass for yeshiva boys. These young women often wore neckties with their white blouses, as if to underline the fact that they were operating in a man's world. Men had the vote; men owned the shops and hired the sometimes leering, pinching foremen; men ran the unions and the political parties. At night school, in the English classes designed for immigrants like Clara Lemlich, male students learned to translate such sentences as "I read the book," while female students translated, "I wash the dishes." Clara and her sisters wanted to change that. They wanted to change almost everything.

Lemlich was headed downtown, toward the crowded, teeming immigrant precincts of the Lower East Side, but it is not likely that she was headed home. Her destination was probably the union hall, or a Marxist theory class, or the library. She was a model of a new sort of woman, hungry for opportunity and education and even equality; willing to fight the battles and pay the price to achieve it. As Charley Rose fell into step behind her-this small young woman hurrying along, dressed in masculine style after a day on a picket line-the strong arm perhaps rationalized that her radical behavior, her attempts to bend the existing shape and order of the world, her unwillingness to do what had always been done, was precisely the reason why she should be beaten.

Lemlich worked as a draper at Louis Leiserson's waist factory-women's blouses were known as "shirtwaists" in those days, or simply as "waists." Draping was a highly skilled job, almost like sculpting. Clara could translate the ideas of a blouse designer into actual garments by cutting and molding pieces on a tailor's dummy. In a sense, her work and her activism were the same: both involved taking ideas and making them tangible. And the work paid well, by factory standards, but pay alone did not satisfy Clara. She found the routine humiliations of factory life almost unbearable. Workers in the waist factories, she once said, were trailed to the bathroom and hustled back to work; they were constantly shortchanged on their pay and mocked when they complained; the owners shaved minutes off each end of the lunch hour and even "fixed" the time clocks to stretch the workday. "The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the foreman, made life unbearable," Lemlich later recalled. And at the end of each day, the factory workers had to line up at a single unlocked exit to be "searched like thieves," just to prevent pilferage of a blouse or a bit of lace.

With a handful of other young women, Clara Lemlich joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in 1906. She and some of her fellow workers formed Local 25 to serve the mostly female waist makers and dressmakers; by the end of that year, they had signed up thirty-five or forty members-roughly one in a thousand eligible workers. And yet this small start represented a brazen stride by women into union business. The men who ran the ILGWU, which was young and struggling itself, composed mainly of male cloak makers, did little to support Local 25. Most men saw women as unreliable soldiers in the labor movement, willing to work for lower wages and destined to leave the shops as soon as they found husbands. Some men even "viewed women as competitors, and often plotted to drive them from the industry," according to historian Carolyn Daniel McCreesh. This left the women of Local 25 to make their own way, with encouragement from a group of well-to-do activists called the Women's Trade Union League.

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