Why the Triangle Fire Matters Still

By David Von Drehle

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
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The spirit of the early 20th century was, simply put, the spirit of Progress. New Yorkers who, as children, read by the light of whale oil lamps and crossed the East River by wooden ferryboat now crossed over bridges aglow with electric lights, as if riveted with diamonds. A generation earlier, the tallest structure in the city was a church steeple; now new skyscrapers were topping out at the rate of one every five days. Humans could fly and pictures could move.

Among the countless lasting inventions was the modern newspaper, dreamed up by publishers with names like William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Ochs and — the most influential of them all — Joseph Pulitzer. The New York World, Pulitzer’s great newspaper, expanded from the news-and-opinion format of the 19th century to introduce feature sections, a magazine, comic strips, and lots of photographs. Pulitzer was the first publisher to sell a bulky Sunday paper, which in turn led him to elevate college football from Ivy League brawling into an enduring cultural sensation. He needed something popular to lead the Sunday news pages.

But the World didn’t need to create a story for Sunday, March 26, 1911. On Saturday afternoon, the 25th, the World’s star reporter and future editor, Herbert Bayard Swope, charged into a hotel suite where New York District Attorney Charles Whitman was holding an informal press conference. “That will be enough, boys!” Swope declared. “The Triangle building’s on fire and I think the D.A. should be there.”

News of the deadly blaze at the Triangle Waist Company dominated every front page in the city the next morning. The story was so gruesome it required no sensationalism. At closing time in the city’s largest blouse factory, a spark or cigarette butt set fire to a bin of fabric scraps and tissue paper. Within minutes, the flames had trapped nearly 150 workers, mostly women and girls, on the ninth floor of a 10-story building just east of Washington Square. A huge crowd of witnesses rushed from the square and nearby streets, arriving in time to watch helplessly as victims leapt from the windows to escape the flames.

By the time Swope and the D.A. reached the street corner, 146 people were dead.

In the days that followed, the major papers continued to run huge headlines over stories examining the fire — what caused it, and who was to blame. The World demanded a vigorous set of new safety laws. Hearst’s New York American pointed an accusatory finger at the city building commissioner. Other newspapers called for the prosecution of the Triangle factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. “BLAME SHIFTED ON ALL SIDES FOR FIRE HORROR,” the Times headlined.

But the passion for change burned out almost as quickly as the fire itself. Readers in New York had their pick of some two dozen daily newspapers; thus, the competition to find a new story trumped all other concerns. Within a few weeks after the catastrophe, a headline deep inside the World declared: “Public Officials Already Losing Interest in Proposed Reforms.”

Why, then, did the Triangle fire lead, ultimately, to the most sweeping workplace safety reforms America had ever seen? A significant part of the answer lies in the journalism translated in today’s commemorative issue of the Forward.

Abraham Cahan was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania whose creativity and influence were, in their way, a match for Pulitzer’s or Hearst’s, although his fame and fortune never approached theirs. In 1897, Cahan founded the Yiddish-language Forverts to serve the rapidly growing community of Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side. Patriotic, pro-union, and passionately socialist, the Forverts (or Forward in English) became, in many ways, the soul of that community. Roughly a third of the immigrant Jews in New York worked in the garment shops in those days, and the Forverts rallied them to organize — even as it tutored them on their transition into American society. “It is as important to teach the reader to carry a handkerchief in his pocket as it is to teach him to carry a union card,” Cahan once explained.

With remarkable speed, the new immigrants built a self-sufficient society around pillars like the Forverts, the Workmen’s Circle, the United Hebrew Trades and the Educational Alliance. Through the twin engines of organization and assimilation — the guiding principles of Cahan’s newspaper — they became a significant political force in New York City.

Their rise did not escape the attention of New York’s corrupt Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall. Tammany’s power was its loyal base among the Irish and German immigrants of the previous generation. But by the early 1900s, many of those earlier arrivals were moving out of the crowded Manhattan tenements — and the new immigrants were taking their places. The Lower East Side became “a wonderful field for the Socialistic propaganda,” the New York Times explained at the time, “and socialism has a great army of devotees here.” In 1905 and 1909, they threw their support to publisher Hearst in his campaigns to wrest control of the city from Tammany Hall.

This solidarity, with the Forverts as a catalyst, was a force that Tammany Boss Charles F. Murphy could not ignore. And when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets in a driving rainstorm to honor a funeral procession for the Triangle victims — one of the largest crowds ever gathered in the city — Tammany Hall realized that the needs of the workers could speak to America as a whole.

For the first time in its long history, Tammany Hall embraced genuine reform. Murphy ordered the Tammany-controlled state legislature to create a powerful Factory Investigating Commission, led by two young Tammany lawmakers, Robert F. Wagner and Alfred E. Smith. The commission pushed through the most sweeping agenda of pro-labor and pro-safety laws in the country, and this made Tammany more popular and more powerful than ever before. Tammany’s Al Smith rode the reform wave to the New York governor’s mansion, where he served four highly effective terms. He never forgot the Triangle’s dead.

Robert Wagner, meanwhile, entered the U.S. Senate, where memories of the Triangle fire burned bright in his mind as he wrote much of the legislation known as the New Deal.

By translating the Forverts coverage of the Triangle fire into English, the staff of today’s Forward has shone a new light on the role of a brilliant community newspaper in reshaping the politics of a nation. The Forverts never lost its passion for the people it served. It called them to stand up, join together and take their rightful place in their new American home. A century after the tragedy at the Triangle Waist Company, in these important translations, we once again hear that call.

David Von Drehle, an editor-at-large for Time magazine, is author of “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”


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