If avoidable catastrophe inevitably drove societies to correct their weaknesses, there would be precious little work for legislatures and regulators. The tragic truth is that terrible disasters become catalysts of major reform only when some more complex scene has been set and a latent reservoir of public outrage is ready to explode.
That is the fascinating story of Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, by David Von Drehle, a reporter for The Washington Post (Atlantic Monthly, 340 pages, $25).
On March 25, 1911, 146 people died in a fire in the Triangle Waist Company plant at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village, New York City. Some fell or jumped from windows on the eighth, ninth or 10th floors. Others were trapped behind locked doors, or outrun by flames and fumes. The fire was brought under control in half an hour, but its consequences ignited the public and then the political processes of New York to institute major, long-overdue reforms.
But beyond the specifics of workplace safety and worker protection and benefits, Von Drehle writes, the fire and its aftermath catalyzed a defining political movement. "The rise to power of urban liberalism ... set an agenda that has helped to define, in support or in opposition, every presidency and every Congress since. Urban liberalism became the dominant politics of the left, absorbing progressivism and supplanting socialism."
What we now call women's blouses were known then as shirtwaists, or simply waists - a recent innovation from styles that had been almost totally dominated by one-piece dresses. The book's story begins in 1909 with a strike in the garment district, specifically by workers in the waist element of the industry.
The strike was a profoundly important chapter in the development of the feminist and labor movements in the United States. Some 500 firms were struck, and the battle - often violent - went on for months, exacerbated by management support from corrupt politicians, police and judges. Almost all the picketing workers were women. An estimated 20,000 workers struck, three quarters of them European Jews and the rest mainly Italian immigrants. About 40 percent of New York's garment workers were Southern Italian, but they were far less active in the union movement. Between 1909 and 1913, the total number of unionized workers in New York City grew from 30,000 to 250,000. A large proportion was garment workers.
This was a time of hideous pogroms in Russia and other ugly violence in Europe, as well as brazenly corrupt politics in the United States. A confluence of the feminist movement and the growing strength of the political left provided vital and often colorful support for the striking women - with radical-minded daughters and wives of some of the richest men in New York walking the lines, providing bail, raising huge amounts of money at rallies. Tension and bitterness developed between some of these well-intentioned feminists and the radical socialist elements of the work corps.
There is no question of which side Von Drehle is on. But it is hard to imagine making a case for the owners of the Triangle Waist Company or most of the other garment district proprietors. The owners were Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. They had more than 500 employees. Theirs was the largest blouse-making operation in New York City. They owned several other factories in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Like many of their workers, they were born in Russia, in poverty.
Von Drehle traces the meaning of "sweat shops" - originally the premises of independent contractors. They often operated in small apartments that served as living quarters during the night and then during working days of 12 and more hours were crammed with women, men and children stitching, basting or working at other specialized piece work. The term "sweating" meant getting more work done for less pay. In the 1890s, more than nine-tenths of the manufacturers worked on this contract basis - and in the average workweek there were 84 hours - 12 a day, seven days a week.
The strike began and gained numbers in mid-1909 and was essentially over by mid-February 1910. It was, in balance, successful, raising most wages in the industry and reducing the lengths of working days - but it did not achieve its goal of establishing closed-shop union contracts. It did nothing for safety.
Saturday, March 25, 1911, was the day of the fire.
Triangle had the top three floors of the 10-story building. Tissue paper and light cotton cloth were everywhere in the working spaces. The fire, probably from a discarded cigar, expanded with almost explosive speed and intensity - full blown within about three minutes. A vital escape-route door was locked, as a matter of company policy.
New York University Law School's library was next door. Students and faculty and others rushed to help, using ladders from one roof to the other. The fire escape on the building was hopelessly weak, and quickly collapsed. About 150 people were saved by two heroic elevator operators, running their machines until they were crippled by flames. Scores of people jumped from windows and the roof. Despite heroic efforts of fire fighters, safety nets were useless.
Altogether 146 people, of whom 123 were women, died in the fire or immediately afterwards from injuries. That was more people, Von Drehle writes, "than any other workplace disaster in New York City history up to that time or 90 years afterwards."
In a funeral march, 100,000 New Yorkers walked through the streets with 250,000 standing silent on the sidewalks.
The fire produced a sense of zeal among New York city and state politicians who had long records of indifference to industrial safety and exploitation of labor. The Tammany Hall machine began extraordinary processes of legislative hearings.
Blanck and Harris, known then as the Shirtwaist Kings, were indicted on six counts of manslaughter, hired the hottest defense lawyer in New York and were acquitted by a jury of 12 men.
They drifted into obscurity, but the fire burned on in public minds and politics. Von Drehle writes: "The work of 1912 produced a series of new laws in the 1913 legislature that was unmatched to that time in American history ... twenty-five bills, entirely recasting the labor law of the nation's largest state. There were more fire safety laws."
It is a powerful and cautionary tale, grippingly told - popular history at its most compelling.