Review of “Triangle Fire” from PBS’ American Experience

Brown building (New York University).

Brown Building (Asch Building in 1911), where the fire took place. Image via Wikipedia

There is a rare time when any PBS documentary disappoints me.  Unfortunately, this is one of those times.

One of the first pieces posted here at the Neighborhood centered around one of the most tragic, and important, industrial accidents in history.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Washington Square in New York.  146 people died in the horror, mostly trapped by the locked exits, due to bosses who wanted to keep union organizers out of their shop.  The Triangle Fire brought workers’ rights to national attention, and led to the first workplace safety laws in US history.

This month will mark the centennial anniversary of that tragic event–thus, a PBS documentary is in order, and none better than from the folks at the American Experience series.  This has to be among the best series of documentary films ever: it brought Ken BurnsThe Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War, etc., as well as his brother Ric BurnsNew York: A Documentary Film.  Every Monday at 9, I forego any normal television–to the consternation of my better half–in order to enrich myself on another unknown tidbit of American history.

“Triangle Fire,” a short film about the disaster, left me a bit unfulfilled.

To those who have little knowledge of the events of 1911, this film offers a good primer.  It highlights the miserable conditions in the garment industry at the turn of the century, as well as the attempts to unionize and change their lot through general strikes in 1909-1910.  The film even highlights the struggles between the workers and the society matrons that support them, especially with regards to unionization.

Many of the “talking head” segments with historians and experts actually take place in the newly-renovated Brown building, which will be a museum to the 1911 fire.  The 8th, 9th and 10th floors of this building (which used to be known as the Asch Building) was where the Triangle factory was and where the fire raged.  It’s a nice touch–yet very unutilized.  To us, it looked like a cavernous loft, not the cramped, fetid workshop with piles of clothes and thread everywhere.

The dramatized pieces, usually involving actresses as garment workers toiling over sewing machines, didn’t give much of a sense of reality.  These scenes were shot almost in a haze, as if everything was a silent movie.  It may be nifty moviemaking, but it leaves the viewer with little sense of how the Triangle shop really worked.

Yet these imperfections can be overlooked if it weren’t for the worst sin of all: the filmmakers forgot to tell the rest of the story.

After the memorial to the dead, the film fades into tributes and concludes that the fire changed our lives forever.


It was criminal that no mention was made of the 1912-1912 factory commission, headed by Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, that investigated workplace conditions in the wake of Triangle.  Tammany Hall‘s connivance at the time was given scant attention.  Neither was there any note of Tammany’s boss, “Silent” Charlie Murphy, whose acquiescence, if not complicity, was required for real reform to be possible.  Nor was there any reference to the reformers who came out of the Triangle investigations and the factory commission–people like Frances Perkins, Belle Moskowitz, and even Robert Moses (as much as it pains me to say).

The story of the Triangle Fire, as told by PBS, was woefully incomplete.  So although this film may work for classrooms as an introduction to the disaster, many diehards of the subject will find little, if any, new material to absorb.

PS: On a positive note, PBS provides a nice website for the film, linked here.  The whole film is found here to stream to your classes, as well as supplementary articles, background information, teacher resources and primary documents.



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2 responses to “Review of “Triangle Fire” from PBS’ American Experience

  1. LM

    Just a small correction — the talking head interviews were actually not shot in the Brown Building in NYC.

    • Thanks for the correction. Being that they were in this whitewashed warehouse-like space, I immediately assumed that it was the Brown Building, or at least the 8th floor under renovation. So would you know which building they were shot in?

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