The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire: Background information when reading City of Dreams

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City of Dreams

The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York

by Tyler Anbinder

City of Dreams by Tyler Anbinder X
City of Dreams by Tyler Anbinder
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 768 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2017, 768 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Beyond the Book:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

Print Review

Immigrants to New York City have always faced impediments in their efforts to assimilate. A new landscape, a new culture, and even a new language invariably pose challenges to the most determined recent arrivals. Often, the jobs available are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, and especially in the days of unregulated workplaces, required long hours under hazardous conditions.

Such were the circumstances in New York's burgeoning garment industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where thousands of unskilled women immigrants toiled in stifling sweatshops for meager pay clocking twelve-hour shifts under unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. The consequences of such dire and unregulated labor became clear on March 25, 1911 in one of the country's most devastating industrial disasters, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire. This incident is chronicled extensively in Tyler Anbinder's City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire The blaze, which killed 146 workers – 123 of whom were women in their late teens and early twenties, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants – helped shine light on the dark and dangerous world of sweatshop labor in New York City and ultimately brought about legislation aimed at improving garment factory working conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company – a shirtwaist, whose definition has evolved over the years, was then a popular type of fitted blouse – was located in the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building in Greenwich Village. Historians claim that the common practice of locking the doors to the stairwells and exits, ostensibly to prevent employees from sneaking goods out of the factory, contributed to the high death toll. Anbinder's narrative of the event is grotesquely spellbinding:

Flames were shooting out the ninth-floor windows and dozens of workers had climbed out onto the ledge to escape them. The huge floor-to-ceiling windows, designed to let in as much light as possible, left no room to hide from the flames, and the hair and clothing of the stranded workers soon began to catch fire. One seamstress, her clothes aflame, tried to jump to the ladder thirty feet below but missed and `hit the sidewalk like a flaming comet.'

The New York Times called the fire "a calamity to put the whole town in a sorrowful mood." The building, at 23-29 Washington Place and now part of New York University, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2008, a group called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition began planning for a memorial work of public art at the site, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing in 2015 that the state was committing more than a million dollars to the project.

Picture of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire from Cornell University

Article by James Broderick

This article was originally published in November 2016, and has been updated for the October 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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