It was a Saturday at closing time on March 25, 1911 in the heart of New York City. Young women (mostly immigrants) and some men were preparing to begin their single day off (a result of recent major labor reform) when a fire broke on the 8th floor of the Asch Building in Manhattan, endangering many and ending as the greatest workplace disaster in the US for the following 90 years.
David Von Drehle's 2003 non-fiction account of the Triangle Waistcoat Factory fire offers a thorough investigation of the social struggle for labor rights and a deep depiction of the era in which the awful event occurred.
The book focuses on the major labor disputes at the time, recognizing early beginnings of "sweat shops" (named for owners who would 'sweat' or cut pay for employees after they complete work and had earlier agreed to higher wages). Large immigrant influxes composed the early manufacturing labor in often cramped, poor conditions with 7-day weeks and long working hours.
The focus then shifts to the fire itself, detailing the development from a likely discarded cigarette to rapid growth from heaps of discarded textiles which ended up taking 146 lives. Locked exits (which were intended to funnel exiting and prevent theft), inadequately planned and installed fire escape, no sprinklers, ladder trucks which couldn't reach the height of the building, and severe lack of drills and warning about the fire all contributed to the disaster.
After the fire the book focuses on the trials of the owners, a Factory Investigation Commission, and the social reform for workplace condition improvement brought about by the labor unions formed in that era. Following the fire and recommendations for the independent commission, New York State legislature passed thirty-eight new laws regulating labor, wages, and safety, including mandates for exit door locking and swing direction, fire escape construction and design, egress access, and installations for alarm and sprinkler systems. Many states followed suit thereafter.
The book is a vivid account of the era, although it spends much more time in social injustice and labor reform than on the fire event and consequences of the fire than a fire protection professional may prefer.
Have you read it?
p.s. If you're interested in reading along with us, our next book is Chicago Death Trap by Nat Brandt, an account on the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. We'll review that volume on September 27th.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.