Saturday, October 01, 2011
Book Review: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911, by Gina De Angelis (Chelsea House, 2001)
The shirtwaist was a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse design popular in the early 1900s - the iconic Gibson Girl image produces a clear picture of fashion at the time. During this period, New York boasted about 450 shirtwaist factories, but building codes and labor laws left a lot of room for interpretation. As a result, on March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. Multiple factors - locked doors to prevent workers from leaving early or stealing materials; ineffective and too few fire escapes and elevators, and crowded office conditions being just a few - led to the deaths of 146 workers, many of whom were Eastern European immigrant women new to the United States. The fire and the ensuing trial - which exonerated the company's owners - gave rise to movements pushing for stronger building safety standards and unionization of garment workers, which would help them lobby for better working conditions and better pay.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of 1911 tells the story of the fire and the aftermath. Black and white photos taken at the scene of the fire and the makeshift morgue bring home the pain of the event and drive home the magnitude of the fire. Readers will learn that not only were the owners cleared of any wrong doing, because the building was legally sound, but they actually made money after the insurance settlement, causing an outcry among family members of the deceased. They will read survivor's stories and learn that the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, went on to continue business and continue the business violations that caused so many deaths at the Asch Building. The book also details the story of the garment workers labor movement and takes the reader into present-day sweatshop conditions and the continued fight for safe working conditions and a living wage.
There are many online resources dedicated to the Triangle Fire. Cornell University's Kheel Center for Labor Documentation has a web exhibit with primary and secondary sources housed in their archives and offers a bibliography for further reading and research. Cornell also offers a link to a transcript of the trial against Blanck and Harris. Nonprofit organization Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, seeking to establish a permanent memorial to the victims, offers an open archive where contributors add their own modern-day remembrances and information and a names map which lists the name, country of origin, New York address, and final resting place of the identified victims. Below is a PBS video that some teachers have shown in class.