Hist 298 Papers

Topic Proposal

Madalyn Ullestad

Proposal: Two Fires, Two Social classes, Two different reforms?

In the early twentieth century, there was an increasingly high risk of danger from disasters in American cities. With so many deadly incidents, the United States went through a “Progressive” era of change in hope to promote safety precautions, along with other social issues; but how progressive was it? Disasters such as the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire and the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire sparked protests and demands for change. The Iroquois Theater fire occurred in 1904 and killed up to six hundred men, women, and children. The Triangle factory fire happened seven years later in 1911, leaving 146 workers dead. These are two different fires with one affecting the middle and upper classes and the other affecting the working class. The reform to safety regulations and reactions amongst the public may have differed as well depending on social class.

The proposed paper will study the changes made in legislation regarding safety and fire prevention after each disaster and determine whether the reforms and reactions to both incidents were different based on class. It will investigate each fire and compare and contrast the characteristics of each, looking at the groups of people within the buildings, reasons for being at the particular location, prevention measures, the investigation into each, and the reform measures taken afterward. While these are both similar in being deadly fires, they are different in many other aspects such as different cities, functions, and reasons for being there in the beginning. Testimonials from victims, families, and anyone involved in the investigations will reveal any differing perspectives of the two deadly fires. This proposed paper will explore if the reactions to each fire differed in any way based on the social class of the victims because of the nature of the fires themselves (i.e. work-related tragedy vs. social outing tragedy).  The research will extend into news coverage of the incidents between the two cities, New York and Chicago, and the public Congressional government records pertaining to the fires. These are two very different fires, yet both resulted because of poor safety regulations and could have been prevented. This proposed project will attempt to uncover and clarify any hidden differentiations in safety regulation of the early twentieth century based on the social classes of the victims.

Because of the large number of deaths resulting from these fires, these two fires are very well known and were very public, resulting in an abundant number of sources available, yet there are none comparing the two fires themselves. Primary sources range from available testimonials, investigation reports, court documents, and newspaper articles such as “Over Five Hundred Die in Fire” from the New York Tribune December 31, 1903, “Should Obey the Law” from the Chicago Eagle March 5, 1904, and “147 Dead, Nobody Guilty” from the Literary Digest, January 1912. As for secondary sources, many perspectives have been published, such as Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Fire of 1903 in 2003 by Nat Brandt and Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by Dave Von Drehle in 2003.Both go into much detail about each fire. All these sources will help reveal the role of social class bias and differences in responses in the investigations and the reform that occurred after the fires.

The Chicago Iroquois fire killed mainly women and children from the middle and upper class. This fire occurred in a building that invited them in to see a show and was supposedly safe. It was right after Christmas, while people were still celebrating the holiday season. The New York Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire killed mainly immigrant women and girls from the working class. This was a place of business and victims were killed while on the job. The media highly publicized these disasters and sparked outrage in the communities. This proposed project will decipher any bias towards the upper classes and differences in reactions to both while attempting to answer the question whether or not social classes make a difference in a disaster.



“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”














“600 KILLED IN AWFUL PANIC AND FIRE IN CHICAGO THEATRE.” The National Police Gazette (1845-1906) 84, no. 1379 (1904): 11.


Chicago eagle. (Chicago, Ill.), 05 March 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025828/1904-03-05/ed-1/seq-1/>


“Chicago Theatre Horror.” Zion’s Herald (1868-1910) 82, no. 1 (1904): 3.


Fredericksen, Grant. “Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903.” Library Journal 128, no. 3 (2003): 148-49.


Hayes, Andrew, and Miller, Tice L. The Iroquois Theatre Fire: Chicago’s Other Great Fire, 1999, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.


Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. “From the Triangle Fire to the BP Explosion: A Short History of the Century-Long Movement for Safety and Health.” New Labor Forum 20, no. 1 (2011): 26-32.


The Minneapolis journal. (Minneapolis, Minn.), 30 Dec. 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045366/1904-12-30/ed-1/seq-1/>


The Plymouth tribune. (Plymouth, Ind.), 07 Jan. 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87056244/1904-01-07/ed-1/seq-6/>


“The Triangle Fire.” The Social History of America (2009): 74-82.


Von Drehle, Dave. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.



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