what i'm reading: triangle, the fire that changed america

About a month ago, I blogged about Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. I finished it quickly, but never found the time to post about it again.

Here's my review: this book is great. It is without a doubt one of the best social histories I've read.

The Triangle factory fire was a microcosm through which to see an entire era, and Von Drehle is an expert at teasing out the many threads that comprise it: labour, urban immigrant life, the progressive movement, the women's movement, machine city government, corruption, reformers. He brings you mini-histories of each, always enough to imbue context, but never so much that you drown in information. This must be incredibly difficult to do, as any one of those topics is very complex, easily supporting the many volumes of books and hours of documentaries made about them.

For example, Triangle contains a capsule history of the garment industry in the US at this time. I knew that New York was the centre of this business, and that most of the industry - workers and bosses alike - were Eastern European Jewish immigrants (my forebears) and other European immigrants. Beyond that, I never asked why.

Why were millions of European Jews flooding to North America? I knew they had been persecuted, but what did that look like; what exactly is a pogrom? Von Drehle paints a brief, harrowing portrait of this horrific mob violence. Why did so many Jews work in the "needle trades"? Being a tailor was one of the few professions open to Jewish people under the Czar's anti-Jewish laws.

Why was the garment industry exploding at this particular place and time? Up until the Civil War, most American families made their own clothes. The Civil War was the first time soldiers wore factory-manufactured uniforms created in standard sizes. Two key inventions allowed for the mass production of clothes, at the same time two other innovations allowed for their distribution: the department store for urban consumers and the mail-order catalog for rural people.

Add to this a seemingly endless supply of cheap immigrant labour, many of whom had previous garment-making experience. Unfortunately for the bosses but fortunately for the rest of us, these immigrants were also activists. They were socialists, and they organized.

Another innovation inadvertently helped the workers organize: the loft factory. Garment industry workers were originally scattered through tenements, working for subcontractors who regularly and ruthlessly cheated them, "sweating" them for more and more work for less and less money. (This is the origin of the word "sweatshop," and it's different than its modern meaning.)

Working two and three to a room, never seeing or communicating with their fellow workers, they stayed weak and divided. When the workers were brought together in the modern factory shop, along with improved working conditions like sunlight and ventilation, they discovered something else: each other.

In this way, through lively, extremely readable digressions, Von Drehle sketches the background each theme. He includes wonderful mini-biographies of the workers, bosses, organizers, politicians, lawyers, and reformers who comprise the Triangle story.

This is a worn cliche to use about a history, but it's the best way to express it: the whole era comes alive.

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