The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents

by Jo Ann E. Argersinger

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Last Updated on October 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945

In The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents, Jo Ann E. Argersinger both practices and teaches the historian’s craft. Historians examine and use sources to create historical narratives that at the same time interpret and explain history according to their particular perspectives.

Argersinger effectively employs both primary and secondary sources in her introductory history of the Triangle fire. Primary sources—records created at the time of the event in question, often by participants or witnesses but also by other contemporaries—form that backbone of her narrative. Argersinger weaves information from the book’s documentary sources into her history, such as when she refers to McFarlane’s article to describe “loft” industries and to Goodman and Ueland’s study to explain the contractor system.

Argersinger also incorporates primary sources not found in the book’s document selection, quoting Pauline Newman, the worker and labor activist, on her experiences working at Triangle. Newman offers firsthand details that enhance the narrative and make it more vivid and engaging, like the sign above Triangle’s elevator that proclaimed, “If You Don’t Come In On Sunday, Don’t Come In On Monday.” Such a detail provides a clearer picture of the owners’ attitude towards overtime and worker compliance than any amount of interpretation.

Historians, however, must also use secondary sources—accounts written by later figures, especially other historians—to fill in gaps in their own narratives and interpretations and to present a broad, informative picture of the event and the scholarship surrounding it. Argersinger cites several such sources, including studies like Nancy Schrom Dye’s As Equals and As Sisters, Caroline Rennolds Milbanks’s New York Fashion, and David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Argersinger is thorough in her research, and her bibliography lists dozens of sources for further reference.

The document selection of The Triangle Fire includes a wide variety of sources, from newspaper articles to firsthand accounts of fire victims and witnesses to Red Cross relief reports. Such a collection offers varying perspectives that explore different aspects of the Triangle tragedy and its context, thereby providing a fuller picture of the event than readers might otherwise have received. Historians realize that not all sources are completely accurate or objective. For example, Louise C. Odencrantz mistakenly says that the Triangle fire occurred in 1912, and Triangle owners Harris and Blanck are intent upon absolving themselves of blame in their March 26, 1911, New York Timesinterview. This is why historians approach sources with a critical eye and are careful when comparing them to other accounts and fitting them into the broader picture of the event.

That broader picture then becomes a historical narrative. History is, after all, a story, and Argersinger writes a thorough narrative in her introductory chapter. She relates the tales of the garment industry, the fight for unionization and reform, the fire itself, and the changes stimulated by the fire in one coherent narrative that carries readers along smoothly. Her account both informs the mind (with statistics and explanations about the garment industry, for instance) and touches the emotions (with descriptions about the workers’ difficult lives and unsafe working conditions). It can be argued that an effective historical narrative teaches history in such a way that readers are hardly aware they are learning history, and Argersinger accomplishes this.

History is not all narrative, however. Historians draw out a story’s meaning by interpreting historical events. Argersinger does this by organizing her narrative around a thesis and employing arguments and evidence in support of that thesis. Argersinger’s thesis appears in the title of her introductory chapter: “The Fire That Changed America.” The Triangle fire, she argues, engendered...

(This entire section contains 945 words.)

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a major shift in American public opinion, politics, law, and worker rights and safety. Prior to the fire, public opinion tended to either ignore workers’ issues or write them off as mere complaints. Most politicians, including New York’s powerful political machine Tammany Hall, sided with owners. Laws and regulations designed to protect workers were few and largely ignored. Workers were exposed daily to risk of injury and fire, low wages, long hours, and much abuse.

While problems still existed after the fire (and still do today), Argersinger emphasizes the changes that occurred. Public opinion turned strongly in favor of the workers, and outraged citizens from every social class lamented the tragic loss of lives and demanded justice. Politicians, spurred on by the reports of investigating bodies like the Factory Investigating Commission, shifted their support from employers to employees, and even Tammany Hall became pro-reform. Lawmakers, also advised by investigative reports, passed laws that shortened working hours, required fire prevention systems, and improved working conditions. Workers did not, of course, experience improvements all at once, and some may not have immediately benefited, but over time, they perceived the results of these changes.

Historians try to remain as objective as possible in their narratives and arguments, but no historian can be perfectly objective. Everyone has a particular background and perspective that influences how they approach history, both its broader contours and its specific events. For the sake of objectivity, Argersinger balances her sources to highlight some opposing viewpoints. She includes, for instance, the New York Timesinterview with Triangle owners Harris and Blanck. Yet her sympathy, understandably, lies with the Triangle workers and victims, as well as with reformers and unions, over employers and anti-reform officials. Most of Argersinger’s sources are sharply critical of employers and officials, but historians and students of history can also benefit from examining primary sources from these groups that might illuminate their perspectives and present a fuller picture of both sides of the issue.