The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents Summary
The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents by Jo Ann E. Argersinger is a historical account of the deadly fire at the Triangle Waist Company in 1911 and the ensuing political changes.
- In March 1911, a fire began in the Triangle Waist Company's factory in New York. Due to the unsafe working conditions, 146 people, mostly young immigrant women in the garment industry, were killed.
- As Argersinger's selection of primary source documents show, the fire marked a turning point in the movement for workers' rights.
- Although the company's owners were acquitted in trial, the tragedy led to significant political and cultural changes.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228
The employees of the Triangle Waist Company in New York City were getting ready to end their day on March 25, 1911, when the cry of “Fire!” rang through the building. The workers, mostly women and girls, hurried to try to escape the blaze, which spread rapidly through the work spaces on the factory’s eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. But most of the exit doors were locked, and the single fire escape could not meet the demand of seven hundred panicking people. By the time firemen got the fire under control, 146 people were dead, either overcome by smoke and fire or killed when they leapt from windows in desperation.
The first section of The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents by Jo Ann E. Argersinger places this tragic fire in its historical and social contexts. Most of the Triangle employees were young immigrant women, Jewish and Italian, who faced significant hardships, low wages, and poor working conditions in the factory system of the era. Owners like Max Blanck and Isaac Harris at Triangle focused more on profit than on worker safety and fair wages.
Various reformers, both progressive and socialist, worked to address the plight of the workers and improve conditions, but they were often blocked by political machines like New York’s Tammany Hall. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) struggled to organize workers into unions but were also met with heavy opposition, especially from businesses like Triangle.
Indeed, Triangle and its owners represented the common views and practices of the garment industry of the day. Many “loft” industries like Triangle made women’s blouses—known as shirtwaists—on one or more levels of multistory buildings and used mechanization and intense employee labor to increase production and remain competitive. Many factories relied on the contracting system to control labor costs, and this led to low wages, long hours, and extreme pressure on workers. Workers put in twelve to fourteen hour days and worked overtime in oppressive and demeaning conditions.
Worker unrest was common, and workers began to join together in unions to fight for their rights. The WTUL and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) led the way, despite threats and resistance from employers. In 1909, Triangle workers decided to go on strike. Company guards abused strikers, and police arrested them, often without cause, but their brave actions led to a general strike among garment workers throughout the city in a movement that became known as the Uprising of Twenty Thousand. The strike proved to be a milestone in women’s activism, but while many companies settled with the union, Triangle refused, and the strike ended in defeat for Triangle employees.
Continued overcrowding and horrific safety standards led to tragedy when a carelessly tossed cigarette or match landed in a bin of cloth scraps at Triangle on the afternoon of March 25. The resulting fire intensified rapidly, and workers rushed toward the exits, most of which were locked, and crowded against the doors. The fire hose refused to work. Elevator boys packed as many passengers into their elevators as possible and made trips up and down until the cables broke. Workers on the ninth floor did not know about the fire until it was upon them, and many of them jumped from the windows in panic as the fire pressed close. Police and firefighters watched in horror from below as even the nets the firefighters quickly spread failed to save evacuees from the nine-story fall.
When firefighters finally conquered the blaze, they were left with the task of collecting the bodies of those who succumbed to fire, smoke, or fall. Families...
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gathered around, trying to ascertain the fates of their loved ones. All but seven of the 146 dead were identified, and funeral processions dominated city streets for days. On April 5, over 350,000 people marched through the streets in the pouring rain in a procession honoring the seven unidentified victims. The Red Cross joined the ILGWU in providing relief for grieving and suffering families.
The public joined reformers in outrage at the tragedy and called for investigations, accountability, and change. A large gathering at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2 also demanded a strong working-class movement. Six agencies soon began investigations and discovered widespread abuses and unsafe environments in factories.
Triangle’s owners, Blanck and Harris, were indicted for first-degree manslaughter on April 11 but were acquitted at the end of December when the jury failed to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that the two knew about the locked doors. Their lawyer, Max Steurer, focused on discrediting and confusing the prosecution’s witnesses, who were mostly Triangle workers and fire victims. The public was furious at the trial’s outcome, with many deriding the “legal injustice” of the acquittal.
Movements to improve factory conditions were, however, at least partly successful, and the political environment of the city changed after the Triangle fire, with political leaders recognizing the need for reform. The Factory Investigating Commission investigated over a thousand factories and collected the testimonies of more than two hundred witnesses. Its reports led to regulatory legislation that started to make life better for workers and transformed the Democratic party into “the champion of immigrants, workers, and urban reform.” Indeed, the Triangle tragedy led directly to changes that made life at least somewhat better for workers across the country.
The remainder of the book is divided into four sections and presents twenty-five primary source documents describing the historical context, stories, and results of the Triangle fire. The first section focuses on “The Garment Industry and Its Workers” with five documents: an expose on the fire danger of “loft” factories like Triangle; a description of the shirtwaist trade, its procedures, its work structure, and its seasonal nature; a research study about the lives of Italian immigrant women and their work; the first-person narrative of Sadie Frowne, a young immigrant garment worker; and Clara Lemlich’s description of life in the factory.
The second section is entitled “Triangle and the ‘Uprising of Twenty Thousand.’” It offers five documents: a New York Times account of the arrest of WTUL’s president, Mary Dreier, and the abuse of strikers; an article about women’s advancement in the reform struggle; another Times article, about the support of strikers by upper-class women; an essay about the goals of the strike; and a song memorializing the strike.
Nine documents comprise the third section, “The Triangle Tragedy: Grief and Outrage.” They consist of an eyewitness account of the fire by reporter William Shepherd; a Times interview with owners Blanck and Harris; the story of fire survivor Rosey Safran; an emotional but not especially factual piece about danger in factories; a Times account of the April 5 memorial march; an excerpt from the Red Cross’s relief reports; an essay about the reliance of families upon women’s incomes; a remembrance and reflection from fire witness Martha Bensley Bruere; and an excerpt from union leader Rose Schneiderman’s autobiography.
The final section, “‘The Fire That Lit the Nation’: Investigation and Reform,” features six documents: an article about the Blanck and Harris indictment; a Times expository about corruption during the owners’ trial; an essay denouncing the owners’ acquittal; a 1913 Chicago Daily Tribune article about continuing safety abuses by Blanck and Harris; an excerpt from the Factory Investigating Commission’s report; and an excerpt from a memoir from FIC investigator Frances Perkins.