For my historical event analysis, I have selected the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and how this event impacted workers’ rights and protections in the United States. The Triangle Fire was a major industrial disaster that claimed the lives of 146 factory workers, contributing additional momentum to the Progressive movement in the United States (Feldman, 2019). Riding on the curtails of the three-month Shirtwaist Strike, the fire was a consequence of poor working conditions and the refusal of the Triangle Company owners to address worker concerns (Todd, 2005).
The Triangle Fire served as a temporary catalyst for the advancement of Progressive goals and necessitated Frances Perkins’ involvement in the shaping of Progressive policies (Berg, 1989).
To determine how the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire contributed to the Progressive movement, this analysis must first address the event and its impact on workplace reform. Therefore, one important secondary source includes And all who jumped died: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire by Patricia Lanier Pence, Paula Phillips Carson, Kerry Carson, Brooke Hamilton III, and Betty Birkenmeier.
This article provides important historical context regarding the fire and the rationalizations the factory owners used to dismiss any claims of wrongdoing. The article also looks at the fire’s impact on workplace reform and how to avoid similar disasters in the future (Lanier Pence, Phillips Carson, Carson, Hamilton & Birkenmeier, 2003). This secondary source provides context about the Triangle Fire and how this historical event attracted substantial public attention to worker rights advocacy and the Progressive movement. Despite the importance of the Triangle Fire, it is also necessary to look at the people the fire impacted and influenced.
Therefore, a closer look at how the Triangle Fire necessitated France Perkins’ involvement in the Progressive movement is warranted. The secondary source Labor Hall of Fame: Frances Perkins and the flowering of economic and social policies by Gordon Berg provides a generalized overview of Perkins’ social and political endeavors from 1903 to 1955. This article provides important historical information about the various health, safety, labor, and social legislation/policies Perkins advocated for, both before and during her tenure as the United States Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt (Berg, 1989). This secondary source was chosen due to its exploration of France Perkins’ social and political contributions and provides a brief introduction of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s involvement as well. These secondary sources provide vital historical information about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Frances Perkins and each respective source provides necessary historical context regarding how this event and female political figure contributed to the broader Progressive Era.
In addition to the aforementioned resources, it is important to consult historical sources that were directly affiliated with the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Primary sources provide first-hand accounts of events and a glimpse into the personal or institutional viewpoints at that point in history (e.g., diaries, letters, interviews, mNew Yorkemoirs, photographs, posters, magazines, newspaper articles, etc.). One important primary source that will be consulted is a newspaper column from The Tacoma Times titled: “Only Fire Escape in New York Sweatshop Fire was a Fire Trap” (The Tacoma Times, 1911). This resource is a primary source due to its status as a newspaper segment from April 1911 and provides an institutional viewpoint nearly a month after the occurrence of the Triangle Fire. The newspaper column includes an image of a degraded fire escape on the Asch Building, where the Triangle Fire occurred. The text accompanying the image elaborates that the fire escape was poorly built and ultimately failed when Triangle Factory workers attempted to use it to escape the fire. The column implies that the Triangle Company built a negligent structure that while legally compliant, was insufficient for its intended purpose (The Tacoma Times, 1911). This newspaper column appears to reflect the anger and public outcry after the fire while highlighting one of the major concerns of the progressive movement – worker safety. While this newspaper segment provides a glimpse into the initial reactions to the Triangle Fire, it is also important to understand the public discourse and activism that followed. Therefore, another useful primary source is a newspaper article from The New-York Tribune, titled: “Inquiry Planned to Stop Factory Fires” (The New York Tribune, 1911). This article addresses the increasing public pressure for investigations into factory conditions and to enact of legislative changes. The article touches on workplace hazards and the establishment of building safety requirements to avoid the reoccurrence of emergencies similar to the Triangle Fire. The article focuses on reform-related viewpoints with a strong emphasis on pressuring public officials to act (The New York Tribune, 1911). This article has a progressive tone, as it accentuates reform and legislative action to address public and operative concerns. Furthermore, the article implies the Triangle Fire affirmed the public urgency for worker safety and workplace reforms. Both of these primary sources interlink with the prior secondary sources by showing how the Triangle Fire was portrayed by the press and the Progressive leaning in the featured image and the newspaper narratives.
The selected secondary and primary sources will be used for historical analysis and will attempt to access how the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Frances Perkins’ reform efforts impacted the goals and policies of the Progressive movement. Specifically, the following research question will be addressed: How did the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and activist Frances Perkins contribute to the passage of Progressive legislation and policies? This question links to the chosen sources, as the Triangle Fire sparked extensive public response and increased the pressure for workplace reform, while also significantly altering Frances Perkins’ life and pushing her more into the realm of public safety and social policy. In addition to the main research question, others may also be explored, such as: How did the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire influence state and national reform regarding workplace fire safety? To what degree did Frances Perkins’ efforts contribute to worker protections for women? How did Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation reflect and advance the Progressive agenda?
This historical analysis will be geared toward an audience that is unfamiliar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire but has some foreknowledge of the Progressive movement. The audience will have a basic understanding of the Progressive movement but are interested in knowing more about how a specific event (e.g., the Triangle Fire) and its affiliated publicity influenced the creation and/or passage of Progressive policies. This analysis is intended for an academic audience that shares a similar interest in the Progressive movement and will be written in a formal style. A potential venue for this audience could be a historical seminar about the Progressive Era. For this audience, I will primarily concentrate on the Triangle Fire and its aftermath on public policy. This will include a discussion about how the fire influenced Frances Perkins and her contributions within the larger context of the Progressive movement.
The message for this audience will not be surprising, but hopefully informative: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire indirectly promoted the Progressive movement by affirming the need for industrial workplace reform, employee safety, and social welfare policies. This message coincides with what audience members already know about the Progressive movement but suggests that the Triangle Fire played an unintended but crucial role in swinging policy towards Progressive ideals and goals. This message also permits the historical analysis to discuss those affected by the fire (i.e., Frances Perkins) and how the Progressive movement was shaped by those who pushed for policy and legislative changes in the fire’s aftermath.