The Triangle Fire: A Brief History with Documents

by Jo Ann E. Argersinger
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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.

Summary

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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.

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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 entire section contains 1228 words.)

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