I have always had trouble sleeping. Even when I was like four or five years old I remember lying in bed at night, watching the lights of the cars passing by outside, watching the colors of the sky change, listening to the birds telling me that morning was almost here. So during those long nights I had many ways of occupying my time. One was planning an escape route in case of fire. I had this plan for how I could get around my room as fast as possible, collect all my stuffed animals quickly to get them out the window, and then of course, my own exit out the window that would allow me to drop onto grass, not walkway (notice that my plan included saving my stuffed animals, not alerting any other family members—look, I was the youngest. I think I thought everyone else should know how to take care of themselves). I thought about how I would jump and how best to land. I knew I wouldn’t be scared to jump, because, after all, I was planning on being a trapeze artist. And to be honest, it wasn’t that high from our windows to the ground, only about fourteen feet (I know because of course I asked Dad—he had built the place and could reel off all the specs along with a reason for each aspect of design). I knew I could make it with a few bruises and potential breaks (note to self: should have aimed to land on stuffed animals).
When it’s the middle of the night, and you can’t sleep, you think about things that you fear, and I feared being trapped in a fire. So do most people, I would think. And so that’s why, even though I’m usually very interested in reading and learning about early 20th century history, I had avoided reading David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. I admit that I just didn’t want to read a blow-by-blow account of a fire (and oh, I know that there’s a book about the Connecticut circus fire that I’ll never read; my first grade teacher terrified me enough with that story). This book, however, is very worthwhile, and the description of the fire, while graphic, is manageable. I guess. If there’s anyway to manage such a thing.
Von Drehle’s goal is to put the fire in the context of the labor struggles of the time period. The first part deals mainly with a major strike of garment workers that took place about two years before the fire. The strike garnered quite a bit of notice, not just because of the unfamiliar sight of thousands of women marching and picketing (and in some cases, being scandalously handled by police and hauled off to jail), but because of the attention it got from a group of young, educated, politically active, and wealthy young women. Daughters of the Gilded Age, led by Anne Morgan of the House of Morgan, graduates of schools like Smith (!), Vassar, and Barnard, they stepped onto the picket lines. Now police had to think twice about pushing down a striker—the girl on the ground might be one an heiress. They raised money and brought in speakers, and gave their own impassioned speeches.
At first, the upper-class support helped. It gave the strikers a veneer of respectability and brought positive attention to their fight for less hours, better pay, and unionization. But as the strike dragged on, problems grew—some women workers resented the wealthy young women, feeling they were grabbing all the attention and headlines and their cause was getting lost in the shuffle. Striking workers who were brought to tell their heartbreaking tales of woe at fundraisers attended by heiresses dressed in silk and furs were scorned by some as circus animals on parade. Worst of all, where there was a strike, the socialists soon followed. When leaders of the socialist movement began to show up at events supporting the strike, giving speeches advocating the overthrow of the system, the upper-class women suddenly felt uncomfortable, if not angry. They had signed up to help poor, sympathetic mistreated young factory girls; they didn’t want to be connected with what they perceived as anarchists.
The strike eventually ended, not because of the work of the wealthy young ladies, or the fiery speeches of the anarchists; the busy season for the shirtwaist factories (shirtwaist, by the way, being essentially a blouse—think Gibson Girl and you’ll know what I mean) was coming and the factory owners realized it made sense to resolve it. The strikers, meanwhile, were running low on money and support. They took a package that they had previously turned down and came back to work. They got more money and less hours, but didn’t get a closed-union shop. They also did not ask for, and therefore did not receive additional safety measures.
A little more than a year later, on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It was most likely started by a carelessly tossed cigarette or match, and in an atmosphere filled with bins of light, thin fabric, it went from a small flame to a blazing inferno in minutes; survivors, when later recounting their ordeal, often estimated their escape as taking about twenty minutes, when most of the action took place in less than ten.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up several floors of the Asch Building, located in the West Village, in an area mostly taken up now by NYU buildings. The fire began on the 8th floor. A receptionist got word to management on the 10th floor, but there was no way to notify the 9th floor workers until they heard the panic, and saw the flames and smoke.
The fire broke out at about 4:45, the end of the workday. All the doors in the factory were locked at the end of the day, except for one exit. As each girl passed through that door, she had to open her purse and empty her pockets to show she hadn’t stolen anything. As the fire spread on the eight floor, a supervisor with a key managed to push through the crowd of girls rushing at a locked door, unlocked it, and those workers made their way out. Some girls went out on a fire escape, but it was rickety and poorly constructed. They forced their way into the windows of a lower floor of the building. Someone heard them pounding on the locked door there, opened it, and got them out. On the tenth floor, workers, along with the factory owners and the visiting young daughters of one owner, made their way to the roof. NYU law students attending a lecture in an adjacent building heard the panic and saw the people grouped on the roof of the burning building. The roof of their building was about thirteen feet higher than the Asch Building, but they got ladders and rescued people that way.
The elevator operators made several trips to the top floors of the factory, carrying down cars packed with double the normal occupancy. Some girls threw themselves into the shafts and onto the descending cars. Some slid down the elevator cables.
Those that survived, as Von Drehle put it, were those who happened to be in the right place at the right time—near a door that was unlocked, away from a wall of flame, unencumbered by the need to look for family members. Survivors were also those who made quick decisions—to run to the roof without hesitation, to go to a door, who decided to jump onto the elevator.
In all, about 146 survived—it’s still hard to get a final number, because no one knew exactly how many people were working that day, and there is no surety that all bodies were recovered. Some died in the building. Others, as is well-known, jumped to their deaths, choosing to be crushed rather than burn.
The aftermath of the fire is important, according to Von Drehle, not just because of what it meant in terms of factory safety reforms, but what it meant to the entire progressive movement. In the wake of the fire, a woman named Frances Perkins went to Albany as a lobbyist on behalf of the Consumer League. She was named to a Committee on Safety, and with the aid of two young politicians named Al Smith and Robert Wagner, began to agitate for factory reform. Smith and Wagner were in office via the support of Tammany Hall. The Tammany Boss, Charles Murphy was all for making it look like he supported factory workers and factory reform, in order to win the votes of the many workers in downtown New York. But he also depended on the financial support of many factory owners, so he instructed his legislators to appear to agree with bills on factory reform, but in the end to vote against it. Yet Perkins, along with Smith and Wagner, persuaded other Tammany men to support safety reforms and a reduction in hours. Later Murphy would tell Perkins that he had opposed the 54 hour work week bill that she had lobbied for successfully, but that he recognized that “the bill made us many votes.” And with that, Tammany Hall, the epitome of corruption, began to support a progressive agenda. The careers of progressives such as Smith and Wagner were built on the ashes of the fire.
The DA, in the end, decided to charge the factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, for the death of one particular worker as a result of a specific door being locked (charging the men with one death this way seemed a safer bet than trying to prove the deaths of many, and in the end, the penalty wouldn’t be much different). It was illegal for the doors of a factory to be locked, and the DA seemed to have a good case—testimony of survivors about the door being locked every day, on that day in particular, and the lock itself, recovered from the building. But the judge’s instructions left the jurors in a difficult position. They had to decide whether the owners knew, on that day, that that particular door was locked at that moment, and in the end, they couldn’t find that the evidence had proved that. The owners were acquitted.
Von Drehle does a good job drawing a portrait of not just the fire, but of the time—the lives of the workers and how and why they ended up there, the lives of those in the tenements, and the labor circumstances of the time. It’s a fast-paced, page-turner type book. The fire isn’t exactly a fun topic, but it’s a dramatic one. I recommend this particularly for anyone who’s interested in early 20th century history or labor history.
I still have trouble sleeping, and in the middle of the night, when I have run out of other things to think about, I still find myself lying there, planning ways to escape if a fire broke out in my building. But it’s much harder to find those now so instead I just hope.