Friday, March 25, 2016

The Fire that Changed America

For several weeks I had planned to write this article about the terrible “Triangle fire” that occurred 105 years today. Then earlier this month I had the privilege of hearing a talk by David Von Drehle, an editor-at-large for Time magazine. (Some of you may have seen his cover story about Donald Trump in the March 14 issue of Time.)
Von Drehle (b. 1961), I learned then, is also the author of Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (2003). It is an engrossing book about the Triangle Waist Company fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, a fire that tragically took the lives of 146 people.
Last week June and I also watched “Triangle Fire,” a DVD that was originally a PBS program produced in 2011 as part of the centennial remembrance of what they call “the tragedy that forever changed labor and industry.”
Von Drehle’s first chapter tells about the beginning and growth of the waist factories in Manhattan during the first decade of the 20th century. That was when waists and skirts first became popular wearing apparel for women in this country. (At that time, women’s blouses were known as “shirtwaists,” or simply as “waists.”)
Hundreds of factories sprang up in New York City to produce the popular new garment. The great majority of the workers in those factories were women who were new immigrants, mostly Italians and East European Jews. The working conditions, as well as the living conditions, for most of those factory workers were terrible.
 Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were the owners of the Triangle Waist Company. According to Von Drehle, “They were rich men, and when they glanced into the faces of their workers they saw, with rare exceptions, anonymous cogs in a profit machine” (p. 36).
Those were still the days of “robber barons,” men who became wealthy through the exploitation of the people who out of financial necessity had to work for them with very low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions.
(Is there any significance, I wonder, that the billionaire now running for President named his youngest son Barron?)
The fire right at closing time on that March afternoon in Manhattan drew huge crowds, as did the funeral march for the Triangle dead four days later. From 350,000 to 400,000 people participated in what one newspaper called one of the “most impressive spectacles of sorrow New York has ever known.”
As Von Drehle emphasizes, though, “the plight of the shirtwaist workers brought together the forces of change” (p. 193). Eight new workplace safety laws were created in 1912, including the law that women and boys could not work more than 54 hours a week. The next year, 25 more new laws were passed to protect factory workers.

The Triangle fire also resulted in political changes in New York and eventually in the nation. For many years up until 1911, New York was controlled by the Democratic Party’s corrupt political machine known as Tammany Hall.

However, it was Tammany Hall that pushed through the new labor laws of 1913, and it was evident in that year’s elections that it had become “a true friend of the working class” (Von Drehle, p. 217).

Later, “Tammany’s Al Smith, bearing the legacy of the Triangle fire, grew into the dominant political figure in New York from 1918 to 1928” (p. 259). Smith, then, became the Democrat’s candidate for President in 1928.

Von Drehle concludes, “In the generation after the Triangle fire, urban Democrats became America’s working-class, progressive party” (p. 260). And that is still true today.


  1. yes, important event in American history, although tragic. However, the fire probably wouldn't have happened if the New York elite and the Triangle factory owners had paid more attention to the Uprising of the 20,000 (or 30,000) of the young women in 1909-10. This strike, one of the largest in the history of the U.S., was organized by the young women who were working in the shirtwaist factories (many of them teenagers). They were joined on the picket lines by some of the wealthiest women of NYC, who stood with them. Many of the factories signed agreements with the women, allowing them to bargain collectively (have a union) and did address safety concerns as well as wage issues. However, the Triangle Factory, one of the largest, did not.

  2. Sorry, my name came out as Unknown -- I am Nancy Garner, Assoc. Prof. of History at Wright State Univ. and proud to be known as a former student of Leroy Seat.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet wrote me an email about this article and then gave me permission to post these comments from him:

    "Thanks for noting this turning point in American history. You are right to suggest some parallels with today's often less visible exploitation, and that good did come out of the disaster, as you enumerate, and also giving prominence through the “Protocol of Peace” to Louis Brandeis, later put on the Supreme Court, an important milestone in American Jewish history. (And of course many of those killed at Triangle, as you point out, were young Jewish and Italian women.)

  4. I appreciate Nancy and Vern posting comments, somewhat related, about this blog article.

    The book "The Triangle Fire, the Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era" (2005) by Richard A. Greenwald narrates the story of the strike that Nancy referred to and about Brandeis, to whom Vern referred.

    Von Drehle's book also has much about the strikes and labor unrest of 1909-11, and he mentions Brandeis a couple of times.

    I had not known much about Brandeis until my granddaughter Lauren became a graduate student at Brandeis University a few years ago. He was a Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939. His appointment was seriously contested by some, partly because there had never been a Jewish member of the SCOTUS before and also because, in the words of William O. Douglas, he was "a militant crusader for social justice."

    Brandeis University was founded in 1948 and named for Justice Brandeis, who had died seven year before.

  5. Thank you so much, Leroy! I remember teaching about the Tammany Hall gang in US History classes when I taught. It was intriguing. Profit over people, seemingly forever! It also brought back the horrible factory disaster not long ago in (China?) where so many employees were killed. "The more things change, ...." Again, Kudos! GMM

  6. I remember seeing a documentary about this, probably on PBS. Unfortunately, workers are still often seen merely as cogs in the wheel. But conditions, thanks to Unions and labor laws, are much better now. Charles Kiker