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Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. Specifically it will contain a commentary on the book, and discuss the theme of the book that even though the city and the country mourned the victims, it took over 100 years for them all to be truly identified, and some victim's names were lost forever. This indicated just how indispensable and unimportant these women factory workers were, and shows that women workers of the time were not only overworked and underpaid, but enjoyed no dignity, no self-worth, and in some cases, not even an identity. "Triangle" is more than simply a book about a horrendous fire that did not have to take so many lives, it is a story of a basic lack of inhumanity and common decency, greed and corruption that led to death, and eventually led to reform.
March 26, 1911 is a day that still remains an important one in history, especially in the history of labor in the United States. As the author notes, the fire only lasted half an hour (Von Drehle 2), but that was enough to make it one of the worst disasters that ever happened at a place of employment. In fact, it held that record for nearly 100 years. The fire caused a stir in New York and around the country, and led to very extensive workplace reforms, such as fewer working hours, child labor laws, and even building and fire codes to try to keep a tragedy like this from happening again. Those were all important results of this fire, and many people had a hand in making them come about. However, there was another important theme that came out consistently in this book, and that was the theme of the mostly foreign-born, mostly female working class who filled the floors of the Triangle Waist Company. To the money-hungry owners of the factory, these women were little more than animals, and this is the theme of the book that seems to matter most. The owners consistently disregarded human life in their quest for sales and profits, and so, many of the young women who worked 12 or 14 hours a day at back-breaking labor did not even have names to the people who employed them. They were nothing, and they died as nothing -- burned beyond recognition and never identified. They were anonymous, they were treated inhumanely, but they were human beings, and the sweatshops of the past (and those of today in Third World countries) failed to recognize this, or recognize them at all. That seems to be the biggest tragedy of all in this book, that the very backbone of the organization, the women who made the products, were absolutely nothing to the men who reaped the profits. In fact, Von Drehle writes, "then the role of the boss was equally well filled by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle. They were rich men, and when they clanked into the faces of their workers they saw, with rare exceptions, anonymous cogs in a profit machine" (Von Drehle 36). They were cold-hearted businessmen, and if a few workers killed themselves working for them, why should they worry, it was not their problem.
The early book chronicles the backgrounds of many of the workers, who were immigrants who came to this country looking for better lives. It also discusses prior strikes at the city's waist factories, and some of the union workers who were advocating change even before the disastrous fire. All this sets the stage for the fire itself, the company, the company's reaction to the fire, and the greed of the owners. This is another thing that is quite interesting that comes from all of this background. First, the owners were often immigrants themselves, who had worked their way up from the bottom of the worker's ranks, and yet, saw fit to treat their brethren worse than animals. Second, it pointed out that corruption and lack of ethics are not a modern business problem. The ethics of Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Anderson have come into question in the past few years, and people wonder if ethics in America are an oxymoron, especially in business. It seems that ethics is not a new issue in business at all, and that greedy owners have always set the pace in questionable business ethics. This book shows this is a long standing tradition in the country, rather than a new and disturbing trend in large corporations.
Throughout the book, the author weaves details of the worker's daily lives in the factories that show the abuses the owners and managers heaped on the workers, and why so many of them were working for reform. The author writes about how they were followed to the bathroom to make sure they did not stay too long, their pay was manipulated and they were harassed if they complained, and "the owners shaved minutes off each ed of the lunch hour and even 'fixed' the time clocks to stretch the workday. [ ... ] And at the end of each day, the factory workers had to line up at a single unlocked exit to be 'searched like thieves,' just to prevent pilferage of a blouse or a bit of lace" (Von Drehle 7). Workers often worked up to 100 hours a week and many women took "piece work" home at night to make a little bit of extra money each week. In addition, the author notes that hundreds of workers were killed around the country every day, and so, the fatalities at the factory were not that unusual, but they were so spectacular they gained the attention of many people who ignored labor problems as a whole. All of this gives an unreal quality to the conditions and the people who promoted them. Today, a person might say, "Who would work under those kinds of conditions?" However, then, they were the norm, and the people who put up with them were desperate, hungry, and would take any work they could get to support their families and put food on the table. It was just the way things were, and so, it is not surprising that much of the book is background on the union labor organizing, striking, and general complaints about the working conditions of the day. The meaning is clear. A lot of things led up to the Triangle disaster, and a lot of things could have been fixed before 146 people died that might have saved their lives, or at least some of their lives.
Perhaps the most meaningful and lasting part of this reading was when the author describes some of the workers who died, and makes them into real, living, breathing people. This makes them even more tragic figures, because when the reader knows their names, and what they looked like, and who their families were that depended on them, it makes their deaths even more tragic. When the writer notes, "All of them went into the factory that morning, but none of them made it out. All their families had left was just a photograph" (Von Drehle 88), it makes the reader feel empathy for the families, and for the workers who gave their lives for so very little.
It is also painful to read that the newspapers did not know much about the victims, and did not take time to learn much. Often, they printed their names incorrectly, and some were only identified with initials and ages. To know so little about the victims seems to make their deaths even sadder and more tragic. So many of the young women were the main breadwinners for their families, and the reader has to wonder how the families managed to survive after they were gone. To read…[continue]
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