The Triangle Factory Fire
The Triangle Factory
Created and maintained by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Catherwood Library, Cornell University
Reviewed April 2007
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Barry
I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound - a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.[Note 1]
So began journalist William G. Shepherd's eyewitness account of the Triangle Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, one of the nation's worst industrial tragedies. The fire started near the end of a Saturday shift and workers on the eighth and tenth floors of the high-rise Manhattan building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company managed to escape. But on the ninth floor, where the Triangle Company's garment workers were concentrated and where one of two exit doors was locked as usual to deter employee theft, many would not survive. After the fire cut off all alternative means of escape, the ninth-floor workers, mostly young immigrant women, were left to choose between burning to death or jumping out of the windows. Nearly 150 died, including fifty-four who plunged to their deaths. The shock of the fire spurred unprecedented efforts to enforce factory safety standards in New York and elsewhere.
The Triangle Factory Fire Web site is an extensive online exhibit about the fire presented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at Cornell University, in collaboration with UNITE!, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. As the site overview explains, it was created in response to the many research queries from middle and high school students received by the Center, and it is secondary school students and their teachers who are the exhibit's target audience. The site offers them a well-chosen array of more than 130 original documents and secondary sources, organized efficiently, plus a bibliography, beginner's guide to historical research, and other resources. While the exhibit was not designed with more advanced scholars or university instructors primarily in mind, it does offer some intriguing resources for specialized research as well as collegiate-level teaching.
Most of the original documents come from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives housed at the Kheel Center. The site also includes numerous excerpts from Leon Stein's history of the fire and his document reader on sweatshops. Students can find many examples of the staple print and visual sources that historians use - newspaper and magazine articles, government reports, letters, photographs, cartoons, and oral histories - as well as some less traditional documents, including lantern slides (with an explanation of what exactly they are), songs, and a radio play re-enactment of the fire. Included are writings, recollections, and images by several well-known figures in labor history, such as Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich, Frances Perkins, and Lewis Hine, along with those of lesser-known workers, journalists, police, photographers, and others.
The various sources make the horrors of the fire and the exploitation of sweated labor amply evident in ways that students should find compelling. Working at the Triangle factory was "a sort of punishment for being poor and docile," as labor organizer Pauline Newman later put it in recalling her stint there before the fire.[Note 2] Newman and others testify to the long hours, unsafe and unhealthy shop conditions, tyrannical managers, and sheer tedium of garment work. The fire itself and its aftermath are of course well documented, too. Particularly harrowing is the account of United Press reporter William G. Shepherd (quoted above), who happened to be passing by when the fire began sending terrified young workers plunging to their deaths.
Importantly, some of the documents also make clear what focusing on the fire can obscure - that life was not all exploitation and victimization for the young immigrant women who populated garment factories. Union organizing and the garment strikes that preceded the fire, including the dramatic "Uprising of the 20,000" of 1909-1910, are duly covered. But students might find even more interesting an autobiographical passage from 1902 by Sadie Frowne, who describes not only the drudgery and exhaustion of her work, but also her lively life outside the shop.
…[A]t the end of the day one feels so weak that there is a great temptation to lie right down and sleep. But you must go out and get air, and have some pleasure. So instead of lying down I go out, generally with Henry.
I am very fond of dancing and, in fact, all sorts of pleasure. I go to the theatre quite often, and like those plays that make you cry a great deal….
Some of the women blame me very much because I spend so much money on clothes…. But a girl must have clothes if she is to go into high society at Ulmer Park or Coney Island or the theatre.
Those who blame me are the old country people who have old-fashioned notions, but the people who have been here a long time know better. A girl who does not dress well is stuck in a corner, even if she is pretty and Aunt Fanny says that I do just right to put on plenty of style.
I have many friends and we often have jolly parties. Many of the young men like to talk to me, but I don't go out with any except Henry. Lately he has been urging me more and more to get married - but I think I'll wait.[Note 3]
One recently added document deserves special mention: a partial transcript of the People of the State of New York v. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, the criminal suit brought against the Triangle owners. More specifically, what the Kheel Center and its collaborators have made available is over 1,500 pages of "digital scans, partially retyped, of the extant trial transcripts." They have brought together two incomplete copies of the four-volume original transcript: one partial volume given to the Center by Leon Stein (The Triangle Fire, 1963), and another two volumes recently located by writer David Von Drehle (Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, 2003) in the papers of the defense's attorney Max D. Steuer, held by the New York County Lawyers' Association. As a complete four-volume set of the transcript is believed no longer to exist, the preparation and publication of this digitized version by Cornell is a considerable boon to researchers.
The basic menu of sections and subsections remains fixed and available throughout the exhibit, which makes navigation easy and logical. The first of the three main sections, "The Story of the Fire," is organized by chronological themes (following an Introduction): "Sweatshops and Strikes," "Fire!," "Mourning and Protest," "Relief Work," and "Investigation, Trial, and Reform." This section presents links to the sources amid brief explanatory essays to enable students to place the research materials in basic context. The second main section, "Sources," is an inventory of basically the same material without the explanatory narrative. Here the sources are organized by type and subtype: "Documents," "Photos and Illustrations," and "Audio," and then, within documents, "Testimonials," "Letters," etc. (For consistency, the documents as well as photos and illustrations are grouped under the same chronological themes as the first main section, i.e. "Sweatshops and Strikes," "Fire!," etc.) The third and final major section, "Other Resources," houses an extensive bibliography, information on annual commemorations of the fire, lists of the victims and witnesses, links to related sites, and "Tips for Student Projects." As with any complex and content-rich Web site, there are a handful of small inconsistencies within and among sections and some dead links need updating. Overall, the site design is attractive and user-friendly.
One may raise some minor concerns with how the exhibit's content has been edited and presented. The print sources are provided in transcription, without accompanying images of originals, which this reviewer finds less than ideal. This may reflect practical choices by the site's producers and it obviously makes the documents uniformly readable. But the transcription-only approach also makes the material less useful for advanced scholars and does not offer students the challenge of deciphering a handwritten letter or seeing what a garment union's newsletter or the New York Times looked like in 1911. Another caveat is that it is not always clear whether and to what extent print sources have been trimmed down, and some sources seem to be edited far more extensively than others (compare, for instance, Pauline Newman's missive to Michael and Hugh Owens, 1951, which omits sections on her experiences immigrating to the U.S. and taking factory jobs, with Charles Willis Thompson's Letter to Wm, 1911, which is presented in its entirely with a good deal of arguably extraneous material). Finally, while visual sources are one of the site's greatest strengths - the sixty-six photos are the single largest group of sources and are generally well captioned, not to mention arresting - basic citation information is scarce. More unfortunate is that the eight political cartoons have neither captions nor any source information, which seems a curious oversight in what is generally such a carefully presented exhibit.
Nonetheless, historians who wish to see labor history better integrated in the pre-collegiate classroom should be grateful for this unique and well-designed resource. Students, teachers, and researchers interested not only in labor history, but also urban history, reform politics, and women's activism, will all find fascinating and useful material in the Kheel Center's Triangle Factory Fire online exhibit.
Kathleen M. Barry has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from New York University. She has taught U.S. history at NYU and Cambridge University and is the author of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke University Press, 2007). She is currently an independent scholar in London, England.
[page [NA], note 1] 1 William G. Shepherd, "Eyewitness at the Triangle," excerpt from Leon Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy (New York: Quadrangle/New Times Book Company, 1977): 188-93. First published in the Milwaukee Journal, 27 March 1911. Online at http://referenc.lib.binghamton.edu:2703/trianglefire/texts/stein_ootss/ootss_wgs.html. [return to text]
[page [NA], note 2] 2 Letters to Michael and Hugh [Owens] from P.M. Newman, typescript, May 1951, 6036/008, ILGWU Archives, Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Ithaca, N.Y. Online at http://referenc.lib.binghamton.edu:2703/trianglefire/texts/letters/newman_letter.html?location=Sweatshops+and+Strikes. [return to text]
[page [NA], note 3] 3 Sadie Frowne, "Days and Dreams," excerpt from Stein, ed., Out of the Sweatshop, pp. 60-61. First published in the Independent, 25 September 1902. Online at http://referenc.lib.binghamton.edu:2703/trianglefire/texts/stein_ootss/ootss_sf.html?location=Sweatshops+and+Strikes. [return to text]