Hist 298 Papers

Triangle Fire Literature Review

Literature Review: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire

            The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of March 25, 1911, was a tragic event in the early twentiethcentury that killed 146 men, women, and girls in New York City. A fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Asch building, one of the floors where the Triangle Company operated, and due to locked doors, lack of fire escapes, and only one functional elevator, the workers inside were trapped with many jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames. The average age of the victims was nineteen. This disaster is remembered as one of the deadliest fires in American history and raised questions about the safety of working conditions. This disaster not only affected lives and families but labor rights, safety regulations, and the class struggles of the United States.

            Because of the impact this fire had on American society, there is a large number of scholarly labor history works referencing the Triangle Fire, but not many books dedicated entirely to the event itself. Due to an increased interest in labor history and women’s history, the Triangle Fire began to be referenced and even began to have books written entirely about the disaster starting in the 1960’s. Historiography at that point started to move away from writing about military history and important male figures and moved towards more diverse genres in history such as labor, class, industrialization and women’s role in history. The literature regarding the Triangle Fire began in the 1960’s and grew due to an increased interest in labor and women’s history, and relies heavily on testimonials, newspaper articles, and court records to provide a narrative of the event yet disagrees on the effects the fire had on labor rights, safety regulations, and American society’s oppression of the working class. Some labor scholars argue that the fire “changed America” and led to a permanent transformation of safety and health regulations.[1] Others argue that class oppression and working-class rights are still an issue and that the fire is an example of society not actively changing after a disaster. All the literature revolves around narrating the event starting with the garment workers’ strike in 1909 and ending with the trial of the factory owners. Nevertheless, the literature on the Triangle Company Fire focuses on the political and cultural effects such as labor rights after the disaster.

            A staple in the literature of the Triangle Fire is Leon Stein’s The Triangle Fire published in 1962. This is one of the first book that is entirely written on the Triangle Fire at a time where there was shift in what historians were writing about. Stein worked as a cloth spreader in a garment shop at the age of sixteen where he then joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). After college he went back to the garment industry as a cutter and became a full-time union organizer in 1941 as well as the editor of the ILGWU newspaper Justice. He is not a historian, but he is an expert in the field of unions and because of the increased interest in labor history, Stein had the opportunity to publish a book completely about an industrial disaster, the Triangle Fire.His book is considered a classic in labor history books and chronicles the Triangle Fire depicting the tragic events and abuse of the garment workers. Moving away from military history, labor history books were being published as the public had more interest in workers and industrialization as well as women’s history. He, as many others do, discusses the strike of the garment workers, illustrates the working conditions that the workers suffered through, describes the fire through testimonials and interviews conducted by him, and ends with the investigation and trials. He focuses on the accounts of individuals and the courageous deeds done by martyrs of the day such as the “heroic elevator drivers such who had stayed with [their] car[s]to the end”. [2] Stein argues that unions play a vital role in offering workers protection and that the fire did not necessarily drastically change the working-class struggles. The Triangle Fire is a significant source in the historiography of the disaster with many author’s citing it as a crucial piece of work.

A labor poet named Chris Llewellyn also brings readers on a “historical journey”[3] through a collection of narrative poems published in 1987 titled Fragments From the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911 Poems. This book gives a voice to the victims with the same themes as other authors on this topic- solidarity, racial, ethnic, and working-class issues. After so many years without literature dedicated to the Triangle Fire itself, this book coincides with the change in historiography at the time. In the late twentieth century, more books start to focus on women’s role in history and the Triangle Fire was a disaster that mainly killed women and girls. Llewellyn describes the Triangle Fire though “fragments” such as testimonials, journal entries, letters, and poems. Like Stein, she recreates the lives of the workers and their working conditions while describing it as the “day it rained children”.[4] This is a significant piece of literature on the Triangle Fire due to the fact that it is written with a different style compared to the average narrative. Her work is noteworthy but does not add to the historiography argument of whether or not the Triangle Fire had a large impact on the working-class after the disaster. Its main purpose is to introduce the voice of women on the Triangle Fire and articulate their importance to history.   

            Another significant author in the literature is Janet Zandy who published an article in 1997 titled “Fire Poetry on the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911”. Here again one sees another gap in the historiography of the Triangle Fire. Throughout the decades of the late twentieth century, more literature, studies, research and collegiate classes focused on labor and women’s history. Janet Zandy has become an expert on labor and class history and had the opportunity to write an article depicting the labor struggle and class oppression in America’s history. A professor of English and American studies who has several works concerning labor, class, and cultural issues, Zandy argues that the Triangle Fire has not been remembered and is “indicative of the contested and suppressed labor history of this country”[5] yet there are still many people of the working class, especially women, that do remember the fire and it has provoked many cultural responses such as novels, poems, play, and film. This shows that the public has turned towards women’s history and has led to an increase in publications regarding women. The article suggests that the Triangle Fire is a symbol of the injustices and the lives lost because of “unsafe working conditions and economic oppression”.[6] She mentions other key authors such as Leon Stein and Chris Llewellyn as she writes her narrative and reveals that she is not bringing anything new to the literature of the Triangle Fire but rather joining a larger discussion of class oppression and adding to the larger area of labor historiography. The main argument of her article is that the triangle fire is not just a historical event to be remembered but an event that exemplifies class oppression and did not drastically change the working conditions of the working-class. Following Stein’s book, both authors recount the tragic events and argue that that working-class still faces subjugation. Zandy, just like the previous authors, add to the historiography of labor history.

The American author Dave Von Drehle’s 2003 book, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America disputes past arguments on the subject. One can see that this time there is a shorter gap between books published regarding the Triangle Fire. History is shifting even further away from military topics and labor topics, such as the Triangle Fire, are becoming more common. This book focuses on the details of the manslaughter trial and relies heavily on court records just like previous works, but Von Drehle takes away that the fire made a huge impact on health and safety regulations. He even suggests that the legislation passed after the triangle fire “was a short hop to the New Deal, Woman’s rights, labor empowerment, urban liberation” in terms of progressive change. His arguments are supported with evidence such as the change in behaviors of the New York Democratic Party after the fire and the coalition that won passage of laws mandating occupational safety and health regulations. In addition to the narrative of the Triangle Fire from past authors such as Stein, Von Drehle adds detail to the trial that had not been mentioned in previous works. This is one of the first pieces of literature that deviates from the typical narrative of the Triangle Fire. Still following the pattern of using testimonials, newspaper articles, court records, trial transcripts, and passed legislation like previous authors, he concludes that the fire did successfully lead to reform.

While not a scholarly piece of literature, the nonfiction work Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy by Albert Marrin, an American historian, in 2011 is important to note in order to understand the literature of the Triangle Fire. This book was published to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the fire and is targeted towards a juvenile audience. This is important to note because of Zandy’s argument that the Triangle Fire is not a “commodity for popular consumption”[7] and that not many people remember the disaster. It is also important to note that labor history and women’s history is being popularized. After another gap in literature regarding the Triangle Fire, one can see that labor, class, and women’s history is now taught to juveniles and a part of their school curriculum. Marrin’s purpose of this book is to do exactly that to a younger audience while attempting to place the tragedy in a historical context. He demonstrates the sweatshop conditions that the workers suffered under and argues that conditions still exist like this in the country. Not straying from previous authors of the subject, Marrin’s main thesis is that the Triangle Fire did not completely fix working conditions for the labor class. This book adds to the historiography of the Triangle Fire even though it is not a scholarly work. Rather, this book illustrates that labor and women’s history is no longer just a topic of research for scholarly sources, but a topic now being taught to the youth of America.

             The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911 was a catastrophic event that only lasted 18 minutes but left 146 people dead. The literature following the event was mentioned in scholarly works, but it was not until the 1960’s that the Triangle Fire began to have books published on it exclusively. The histography has gaps in the literature due to shifting interests. With more historians being focused on labor, class, and women’s roles in history, the gap between the Triangle Fire literature shortens. The literature recreates the disaster through gruesome yet horrifically true testimonials. Some authors on the subject brand the fire as a disaster that America still has not learned from. Others dedicate the health and safety regulations that came after as proof that the fire had significant impact on industry and labor problems in America. Whether through detailed narratives or a collection of poems, The Triangle fire remains remembered and as historiography moves away from military and male dominated topics, more books dedicated to the Triangle Fire are to come if the pattern continues.

Bibliography

DeClercq, Neill. “The Triangle Fire (review).” Labor Studies Journal 27, no. 3 (2002): 118-19.

Llewellyn, Chris. Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911: Poems. New York, Penguin Books, 1987.

Marrin, Albert. Flesh & Blood so Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Stein, Leon. The Triangle Fire. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962.

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

Zandy, Janet. “Fire Poetry on the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911.” College Literature 24, no. 3 (1997): 33-54.


[1]              Dave Von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. (New York, Penguin Books, 1987), 1.

[2]  Leon Stein, The Triangle Fire, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962), 221.

[3] Janet Zandy, “Fire Poetry on the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911.” (College Literature, 1997), 47.

[4] Chris Llewellyn, Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911: Poems, (New York, Penguin Books, 1987), 7.

[5] Zandy, “Fire Poetry”, 34.

[6] Zandy, “Fire Poetry”, 34.

[7] Zandy, “Fire Poetry”, 34. fffffff

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