Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Welcome to this month's reading group selection. David Von Drehle mentions The Melting Pot, a play by Israel Zangwill, that premiered on Broadway in 1908. At that time theater was accessible to a broad section of the public, not the exclusive domain it has become over the decades. Zangwill carried a hopeful message that America was a place where old hatreds and prejudices were pointless, and that in this new country immigrants would find a more open society. I suppose the reference was more an ironic one for Von Drehle, as he notes the racial and ethnic hatreds were on display everywhere, and at best Zangwill's play helped persons forget for a moment how deep these divides ran. Nevertheless, "the melting pot" made its way into the American lexicon, even if New York could best be describing as a boiling cauldron in the early twentieth century.
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America takes a broad view of events that led up the notorious fire, noting the growing strength of trade unions, the suffragette movement and Socialist Party in New York. Traditional Tammany Hall politics were in danger, and factory owners had to form associations of their own to battle the unions. At the center of his narrative is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, owned and operated by Harris and Blanck, who epitomized the unscrupulous garment industry of the day. They fought tooth and nail against union attempts in their factories, and thanks to friendly city officials, did not have to meet basic fire and safety regulations in their factory located in the upper floors of the Asch Building at Washington Place.
What follows is a very engaging narrative that captures the spirit of the era, leading the reader through the events that led up the the worst factory fire in New York history and how this fire shaped American labor history. You can browse past comments, but please post your comments on the book here.