5.13.2009

what i'm reading: triangle

On March 25, 1911, a fire erupted at the Triangle Waist Company, a clothing factory in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thirty minutes later, 146 people were dead. They were all immigrants, and most were young women.

Until September 11, 2001, the incident stood as the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City history. It was also the most significant event of its kind, by far.

The Triangle fire became a catalyst for the burgeoning women's movement, labour movement, and the movement towards progressive government, that is, the notion that government could and should improve people's lives. Movements organizing around the Triangle fire brought changes in women's rights, immigrants' rights, labour laws, building standards, fire codes, and in the nature of city government itself. The Triangle fire was a nexus that linked all the most important changes of that era.

I am the granddaughter of clothing workers, and the daughter of a union man who organized clothing workers, so I always knew about Triangle. Later, I came to see the fire as part of my heritage as a New Yorker, a feminist, and an activist.

So is it any wonder that when I read head-over-heels reviews of a book about the fire, I wanted to read it?

I've just started reading Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, by David Von Drehle. The book is social history at its best: it reads like a novel, putting you right on the street, in the factory, in the courtroom, in workers' meetings, but it's all impeccably researched nonfiction.

You might think a book about one incident would be bogged down in detail, but Von Drehle uses the factory fire as a lens through which to view an entire era of urban America. He writes in a very clear, straightforward style, making Triangle much more accessible than much history I've read.

I'm excited to read it. And because right now I have no money to buy books, I'm excited that the Mississauga Public Library is such a great place.

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You can get the gist of the importance of the Triangle fire on Wikipedia, but the best source online is a project of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Their site on the fire is amazing and well worth a visit.

2 comments:

Amy said...

This sounds terrific. I have always been interested in the Triangle factory fire, especially after hearing a professor tell the story, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. I will have to locate the book. It may also be a great gift for Harvey, who went to the ILR School at Cornell and whose passion is labor relations (he does labor arbitration as well as teach labor and employment law---I am sure I have told you that).

B-MORE FAIR said...

I studied the fire as part of a report that I worked on a few years ago. One thing I found interesting was how the media covered fires, starting with news about the fires, then covering the labour responses to the fires, and ending with stories about how to make buildings that did not burn up. The problem was about burnable buildings, not sweat shops and slave-like working conditions.