The Fire That Changed America by
David Von Drehle
is the hardback edition. The paperback is not
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.
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.
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,
- this is copyrighted material
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.
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.
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.
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
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.