The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The fire that changed America.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, now known as New York University’s Brown Building. Photo by Andrew Dolkart.

Today it’s not uncommon to hear an employer or employee speak metaphorically of “putting out fires” at work. But once upon a time, at the Triangle Waist Company in downtown Manhattan, employees periodically found themselves extinguishing real fires while on the job. Usually, a pail of water was enough to snuff out a potential conflagration, but on Saturday March 25, 1911, a fire that began in a bin of scrap fabric could not be contained. By the time it was extinguished a half-hour later, the now infamous Triangle fire had claimed 146 lives making it the worst workplace disaster in New York history, a dubious distinction it held for more than 90 years.

In the new book “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press), Washington Post writer David Von Drehle provides the first detailed examination of the catastrophe since Leon Stein published “The Triangle Fire” in 1962. More than just a factual account of events, “Triangle” chronicles the preceding labor strife and subsequent political upheaval that makes the fire so historically significant. The author’s discovery of a long-lost trial transcript also advances our collective understanding of the circumstances surrounding the disaster, and helps explain why the Triangle was such a safety-challenged workplace.

As with other preventable tragedies of the era those most responsible for the unsafe conditions at the factory went more or less unpunished. But the victims did not die in vain, as the public outcry that followed provided the impetus for politicians to embrace reforms that, to this day, contribute to public safety.

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