Friday, March 25, 2011 marked the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire where 146 victims, mostly young female immigrants, perished in one of the nation’s most tragic workplace disasters.
The 100th anniversary of the event presents teachers with an opportunity to explore the Fire and its legacy that continues to today.
English teachers can have students write research papers on the event, create videos, write and read poems, write or perform plays. Biographical research such as on Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Fire and played a key role in its aftermath, would be of interest to students as well as other key figures surrounding the event.
Career and Technical Education teachers can have students explore working conditions and workplace safety and health issues.
The National Labor Committee has a powerful video that highlights the Triangle Fire and contemporary issues regarding sweatshops around the world and the tragic fire in Bangladesh in December 2010.
The United States Department of Labor web site features a variety of resources on its Occupational Health and Safety Administration page.
Global Studies teachers can have students research the extent to which labor and environmental rights, including child labor, are upheld in other places around the world and are part of the ongoing debate about the global economy. They can investigate workplace tragedies in other countries such as the February 26, 2010 fire at a sweater factory where 21 female garment workers suffocated from smoke inhalation in a building with heavily sealed windows, locked and obstructed exits and antiquated fire equipment.
Government and Economic teachers can have students debate questions such as the proper role of government in establishing safety and health regulations for the workplace, the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively for wages and working conditions, including safety and health issues, the continuing problem of sweatshops and child labor, and the role of the American labor movement in its efforts to pass and enforce laws to protect the safety of workers.
And, of course, American History teachers have an opportunity to have students use the Fire as a case study to explore a wide variety of issues relating to the Fire including the role of government, employers, and labor prior to, during, and after the event. Of particular interest might be the work of the Factory Investigating Commission whose work led to the enactment of significant legislation that transformed the role of government and led to the growth of the labor movement.
An excellent number or resources are available to K-12 teachers, post- secondary faculty and union education directors to explore the event and the subsequent efforts by labor and government to enact and enforce reforms.
Newly available is The New York City Triangle Factory Fire by Leigh Benin, Rob Linne, Adrienne Sosin, and Joel Sosinsky with Workers United (ILGWU) and HBO Documentary Films. Part of The Images of America series, it uses extensive historical images to tell the story of the Fire and its aftermath.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin is a wonderful comprehensive treatment of the events leading up to, during, and after the Fire and is suitable younger readers as well as adults.
David von Drehle’s award-winning Triangle: The Fire That Changed America is probably the most authoritative account of the Fire and the events surrounding it.
The PBS documentary American Experience: Triangle Fire DVD chronicles the Fire that “changed forever the relationship between labor and industry in the United States.”
HBO will premier Triangle: Remembering the Fire on Monday, March 21 at 9pm; at 8pm on HBO2 on Wednesday, March 23; and at 6:30pm on Friday, March 25 on HBO.
Perhaps the best single resource for teachers is the Cornell University ILR School Kheel Center’s web site “Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire.” Recently updated, the site features extensive resources including the story of the Fire, original text documents, written and oral interviews of survivors and witnesses, photographs and illustrations, a bibliography, reforms and outcomes of the Fire’s legacy and tips for high school students on writing a research paper on the Fire.
The LaborArts “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” web site features ten sections tracing the period leading up to the fire, the fire and its immediate aftermath, images capturing the historical memory of the fire and one on sweatshops in the Twenty-first Century.
The centennial of the Triangle Fire was commemorated at the Brown Building, site of the Fire, in New York City and a number of places across the nation. Remembering the Triangle Fire Coalition web site provides extensive information about activities in a number of categories from film, poetry and literature, dance, theater, walking tours, music and a list of events at the Brown Building. It also cites commemorative events in a number of cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The Coalition had a special commemorative event at the site of the Fire on March 25.
The Capital District Triangle Fire Centennial Coalition had a special event for the New York State Museum on Friday, March 25 at 4pm in Albany. The event was open to the public. Teachers and students were encouraged to attend. Information is available at the New York Dtate Department of Labor web site.
The theme of the New York City Coalition was the “legacy of the victims that changed the rules in America.” One hundred years later, the Triangle Fire still resonates and has relevance. Teachers can – and should – use the centennial of the Fire to provide their students with an understanding of the event, its legacy and its lessons for their lives.
Paul F. Cole, Executive Director