The National Catholic Review
Terry Golway

Is there a high school student in the United States who does not know the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire? Thirty years ago, the answer would have been obvious and emphatic: No. The terrible tale of the disaster that took place in a relatively few minutes on March 25, 1911, was part of the narrative of 20th-century America. Nearly 150 workers, locked inside a firetrap, hostage to lax regulation and criminal indifference, lost their lives when their factory on the eighth and ninth floors of the Asch Building in New York City went up in flames.

The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was an American morality tale, in which the awful consequences of unchecked greed and gross corruption gave birth to a new social contract. From the sidewalks of lower Manhattan’s Greene Street, where so many of the victims landed after leaping from the inferno, rose a political movement that eventually buried 19th-century ideas of laissez faire and the frontier myth of rugged individualism.

That, in its barest details, was the story taught to generations of schoolchildren in their American history classes. And it is the story told in David Von Drehle’s well-written account of the fire, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. But is that story, and its lessons, taught anywhere, anymore? The tenor of American politics in the early 21st century suggests that we have forgotten the fire and the changes it brought about. (In fact, the journalist Bob Woodward provided a well-meaning but telling blurb for this book, saying that it recalls a long-forgotten tale.) A few hours spent in the company of radio talk show hosts or the curled-lip shouters on the Fox News channel would indicate that the Triangle fire didn’t change America all that much, or changed it only for a while. The fire led to demands for safer working conditions, and achieving that goal required government intervention in the workplace. And that led to regulationslots of them: regulations against child labor, regulations enforcing strict fire and building codes, regulations governing the length of the workday and the workweek.

At the time, and in the decades that followed, the reforms inspired by the Triangle fire were considered evidence of social progress and political maturity. Now, however, it is a brave politician or commentator who speaks favorably about the need for government regulations.

Von Drehle’s book could not have been better timed, for it reminds us of the world we left behind in the early 20th century but are about to revisit in the early years of the 21st. The reforms and, in fact, the very political culture inspired by the fire appear to be unraveling as politicians and their cheerleaders assert that government regulation is evil. Von Drehle notes, for example, that the Triangle fire led to a raft of reforms designed to protect American workers from gross exploitation, including the charming habit of requiring low-paid workers to spend 10, 12 or 14 hours a day on the job. In 1912, a year after the blaze, New York passed a law over the vehement objections of the business community limiting the workweek to 54 hours. Now, more than 90 years later, Republican leaders in the Congress and the White House are demanding that business be relieved of the mandate to pay overtime to workers who are asked to put in more than 40 hours.

With his superbly drawn picture of life among the working poor a century ago, Von Drehle brings us back to a time and a place when venal capitalists and their allies in government regarded human lifeparticularly poor, immigrant human lifeas expendable in the rush to riches. He introduces us to the workers, many of them young women, who were doomed to die terrible deaths in the fire. His re-creation of the fire is superb:

 

The passage to the roof was hellish. Flames in the enclosed airshaft had shattered the windows in the Greene Street stairwell. To reach open air, survivors had to skirt the growing fire on the tenth floor, start up the stairs through the flames licking, poking, and leaping in the stairway windows, and continue climbing even as their clothing and hair began to burn. Workers reached the roof gasping, coughing, and tearing at their coats and hats and scarves.

 

The author’s account of the fire is better than his interpretation of its aftermath. Yes, Von Drehle does remind us, and we do need reminding, of the abuses that led to this disaster. He rounds up the three heroes of the state committee charged with investigating the state’s factories: Al Smith, Robert Wagner and Frances Perkins. He does them justice. And he even gives credit to Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy for agreeing to the sweeping changes the reformers demanded, even though the machine’s business allies opposed them.

But he fails, I think, in his explanation for Murphy’s apparent transformation from Tammany boss to progressive reformer. Murphy’s decision in favor of change testifies to the power of votes, Von Drehle writes. Well, yes, Charles Francis Murphy did not get to be a boss without knowing something about the power of votes. No doubt the public’s outrage played a role in his support for post-Triangle reforms, which, incidentally, went far beyond the immediate problem of working conditions in factories. But I think Von Drehle missed a chance to explore other possibilities for Murphy’s actions in a story he recounts and then leaves behind. During a session of the factory-investigating committee empaneled after the fire, the commission member and businessman Robert Dowling complained that the reforms Al Smith and Robert Wagner were supporting would be too costly and, in any case, were an over-reaction to the fire. After all, the number of victims at Triangle were, in Dowling’s words, an infinitesimal proportion of the population. A union activist, Mary Dreier, interrupted. Von Drehle writes:

 

But Mr. Dowling, she cried, they were men and women! They were human souls. It was a hundred percent for them.

 

At that point, Von Drehle says, Al Smith jumped in. That’s good Catholic doctrine, Robert, he said.

Nowhere in this otherwise superb book is it suggested that perhaps good Catholic doctrine has something to do with the conspicuous Catholic presence among the reformers, whether they were politicians like Murphy and Smith or union activists like Mary Dreier. Could it have been conscience, rather than calculation, that drove Charles Francis Murphy and other Catholic leaders to embrace the rights of working people?

Unfortunately, many of the (predominantly Irish) Catholics in this book are portrayed as either calculating hacks, reluctant reformers or lovable rogues, like Big Tim Sullivan. I am not suggesting that the Tammany crowd entertained itself by reading aloud key portions of Rerum Novarum, but it is hard to believe that Catholic concepts of social justice played no role in the contributions of Smith, Murphy and other Catholic leaders in the reform movement. Von Drehle’s extensive treatment of the fire’s aftermath does not consider this possibility.

Nonetheless, Triangle reminds us there is a reason why government decided it had a duty to better regulate the American workplace. In fact, there were nearly 150 reasons.

Terry Golway, a writer for The New York Observer and regular columnist for America, is the author of So Others Might Live: A History of New York’s BravestThe FDNY From 1700 to the Present (Basic Books, 2002).