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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle

On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out in a factory on the 8th floor of the Asch building in New York City. The 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the building were occupied by the Triangle shirtwaist company and 146 workers died, most of them young women. This would be the worst workplace disaster in NYC until September 11th. Unsafe conditions, including a possibly (probably) locked door, literally tons of highly flammable materials, and rickety fire escapes contributed to the tragedy and the owners of the shirtwaist company were put on trial and found... not guilty.

The Triangle fire is something that I knew a tiny bit about- approximately that paragraph's worth- prior to reading von Drehle's book (Triangle: The Fire That Changed America). I had this vague idea that it was something that I was interested in, and an online friend of mine is fairly obsessed with it, so when I saw the book at the library I picked it up. This book was fascinating, completely enthralling and compelling. It opens up with several chapters about labor unions and strikes and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to enjoy it- while I was a history major, unions and the attached politics were never my thing. However, social history WAS and this book is chock full of social history.  The immigrant experience is fascinating and I'm sad to say that I've never really read up on it. I'm now inspired to find more non-fiction about just that portion of American history. (This is where you all speak up with your suggestions of other books I can read on immigrant life.)

The part about the fire is very well researched and makes a compelling case for the owners of the company being at fault. The trial is detailed as well, with the lawyer for the defense being the appropriately shady, but flashy, person. (Think Johnny Cochran .) The book goes on to make a case that despite the "innocence" of the owners, factory reforms started from that point until the entire experience of the working class changed, along with much of politics (at least in NYC.) There's a detailed political history lesson throughout the book, about Tammany Hall and buying votes and socialism and all that. I admit this isn't the part that interests me most, so I'm not sure if he really made his case or not, but I did learn a good deal about it. Even with this political turn, the book is really fascinating, and a great starting point for exploring more of our history. I'd highly recommend it to any history buff.

Next up on my non-fiction list this year is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which is also about immigration, in a way. What books do you recommend about the immigrant experience? What about poor working class life in a big city? Got any suggestions for life in turn of the century New York? 

1 comment:

  1. I actually own this book -- picked it up years ago when living In New York . As a history major I am familiar with the story and know a little how it caused a lot of reforms. I should read it it...glad you found it interesting too!


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