The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

History 102

Web Module # 2

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


          Great tragedies often reveal much about social conditions and the historical problems confronting people.  The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was just such an event.  The news of this fire in a garment factory in New York City created a sensation across the United States partly because of the great loss of life, primarily young immigrant girls, and partly because the Progressive Movement and organized labor had been exposing the unhealthy working conditions under which millions Americans and foreign-born workers earned wages.  Part of the shock was the fact that it occurred in New York State, which at the time had some of the most progressive labor regulations in the country.  The Triangle Fire would have a profound impact on the acceptance of labor organizations, particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the shape of their activities for years.  While changes were affected, it may be the biggest tragedy of all that the conditions that created the Triangle Fire continue to exist in the garment industry in the United States to a limited degree, but are often the norm of garment manufacturing in third world countries today.  The issues raised by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire still resonate in the debate over universities making money off sports apparel manufactured under sweatshop conditions.
          The primary goal (1) of this web module assignment is to evaluate the information contained at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on-line archive maintained by The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University.  A secondary goal (2) is to decide what information within each section of the on-line archives is most useful in understanding the causes, events, and results of this fire.  A third (3) goal is to develop a sense of document bias.  Lastly, (4) students are asked to determine if there is historical information lacking which they feel necessary to understand the historical context of this event.  The exercise is to be conducted in the following way:


  1. For the preliminary analysis of the documents do the following:
    1. Read over the documents in light of the questions provided.  (Note: There are choices to be made)
    2. Describe the contents of the selected documents.
    3. How were the specific documents created?

  2. For the final analysis report do the following:
    1. Building on the preliminary analysis write a report that explains the causes and responses to the fire.
    2. What do the documents taken together inform us about conditions in the garment industry at the beginning of the 20th Century.
    3. What evidence best supports your analysis.
    4. After reviewing the materials try to put yourself in the place of a middle class American living in 1911.  What do you think your would have been your reaction to the news and the investigation?  Explain why you think this would be your response.

    The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on-line archive contains the following sections:

    • Home
    • Introduction
    • Political Cartoons
    • Photographs
    • Oral Histories
    • Sweatshops and Strikes before 1911
    • The Triangle Fire
    • Relief Work and Investigative Activities
    • Morning the Dead
    • Fire Victims

    Go to the web site

    1. Read the Introduction.
    2. Briefly look over the other sections.
    3. Determine which section(s) contain the most relevant materials required to understand what happened to cause the fire.  Explain why they are the most important.
    4. Who was most likely to die in the fire?
    5. What sections best explain the background to the fire?  Why?
    6. Are there documents that support each other?  Which ones?
    7. Are there documents that contradict other documents?
    8. Do you find gaps in the documents?  What kinds of documents would fill those gaps?
    9. Are there any serious biases in the materials and the way they are presented?

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