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Introduction and Overview

This guide is intended to spark discussion of and reflection on Triangle Fire, Thousands watched the Triangle factory burnan AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary that tells the story of the deadliest workplace accident in New York history. One hundred years after the fire that claimed 146 lives at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the release of this film provides an opportunity for viewers to gain a deeper understanding of the brutal and unregulated working conditions that immigrant workers faced in the early 20th century, along with an awareness of the growing demands for unionization and the fierce resistance that these demands elicited among factory owners. The film also introduces viewers to the pioneering women activists who spearheaded the movement for garment workers' rights and illuminates the dramatic shifts that occurred in the relationship between labor and government as a result of the cataclysmic blaze that swept through the Triangle factory on March 25, 1911.

This guide can be used by educators, students, and other viewers as a starting point from which to discuss and analyze the Triangle fire and its dramatic aftermath. The film and guide can serve as resources in history, social studies, government, civics, English, writing, and women's studies courses.

Learning Objectives and Curriculum Standards

Triangle Fire provides a compelling point of departure for discussion, writing, and activities that meet an array of state and national curriculum standards and benchmarks.

These include fostering an understanding of:

  • The role that Progressives and others played in addressing problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption
  • The challenges faced by immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th century (e.g., the tension and disparities between American ideals and reality)
  • The rise of the American labor movement and the role of progressives and radicals within the labor movement
  • The changing scope of government regulations; the role of such regulations in promoting competition and worker safety; the ongoing debate over having more or less government regulation of business; and the fact that government regulations are sometimes instituted in response to illegal or unethical business practices
  • The struggle for gender equality and the extent of women's progress toward economic opportunity, social equality, and political rights
  • The rights of organized labor and the shifting role of government in regulating business, along with the political conflict created by workers' demands for increased protections and improved working conditions

Standards adapted from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's Content Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database (www.mcrel.org/standards).

Using This Guide

This guide is divided into two parts. Part One presents a series of discussion questions organized into four thematic blocks that focus on the immigrant experience as personified by workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; the challenges of industrialization; the clash between workers' demands for unionization and bosses' resistance of these demands; and the shifting relationship between labor and government that emerged as a result of the Triangle fire. These questions can be used for discussion by small or large groups of students or community members, or as writing prompts. In Part Two of the guide, you'll find suggested projects and activities to extend viewers' engagement with the film and its key themes. Please note that in addition to its national broadcast on PBS, Triangle Fire will be available for online viewing in streaming format at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/triangle/player/ as of March 1, 2011.

Part One: Discussing the Film

Before Viewing

What role does the government play in making 21st-century workplaces safe for employees and in establishing rules for employers? Discuss as a group, citing specifics drawn from the personal experiences of group members. Then consider: What would happen if the government stopped regulating industry?


During Viewing

The film depicts an epic clash between workers who fought for unionization and better working conditions, and bosses who fought equally hard to keep their factories free of unions and regulation. While watching the film, make note of arguments on both sides of this debate. Then discuss: Which of these arguments do you consider most persuasive? What caused public opinion to shift from favoring the factory owners' arguments to supporting workers' demands for workplace regulation?


After Viewing

The following post-viewing discussion questions are organized into four strands, focusing on the immigrant experience as embodied by workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; the challenges and perils of industrialization; workers' demands for unionization and bosses' resistance to these demands; and the changing relationship between labor and government that emerged as a result of the Triangle fire.

The Immigrant Experience

Dreams versus realities. Review Chapter One of Triangle Fire. According to the film, what countries of origin were represented among New York City's 100,000 garment workers? What brought these immigrants to America, and what motivated them to work such long hours? How did the realities of their working lives contrast with their dreams and their observations of promise and opportunity in America?

From rags to riches. What did Max Blanck and Isaac Harris have in common with the women who worked for them at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory? When and from where did Blanck and Harris arrive in America, and how had they transformed their lives and social status? In what ways does their story embody the American Dream? What does Steve Fraser mean when he says in the film that "these industrial buccaneers [were] lionized"? (To learn more, read Blanck and Harris' biography.)

Inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

"A plum job." What is a shirtwaist? Why was working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a desirable job? Describe the factory environment. In what ways was it modern? What does historian Annelise Orleck mean when she asserts that "Triangle was a plum"? Do you think workers shared this view?

Conditions at the Triangle factory. What was a typical day like for workers at the Triangle factory? In what ways was this workplace dangerous? How much money did the workers earn? For what reasons did bosses dock workers' pay? Review some of the first-person testimony presented from women who worked at the Triangle factory. Which anecdotes about factory life strike you as most troubling? Most eye-opening? Why?

The price of competition. Why did Blanck and Harris believe that their empire "was under constant siege"? What forms of competition did Blanck and Harris face? Why did the Triangle owners keep the factory's Washington Place exit locked? What does historian Steve Fraser mean when he says that the bosses treated workers "like animals, like pieces"? What evidence presented in Chapter Two of the film supports this point?

Demanding a Union

Envisioning change. Review Chapter Three of the film. What changes were shirtwaist workers agitating for when they made the decision to go out on strike? How did factory owners respond to these demands? Why did factory owners like Harris and Blanck see unionization as a threat and as a personal attack? How would unionization affect conditions at the factory? In your opinion, were the workers' demands reasonable? Were the factory owners justified in resisting these demands?

A daring idea. Who was Clara Lemlich and what arguments did she make in favor of a general strike? How did workers respond? Why was an industry-wide strike unthinkable before the shirtwaist workers gathered in November 1909 and heard Lemlich's speech? How did reformers and labor leaders respond to Lemlich's idea? How did the police and mayor respond? What was the impact of the general strike by shirtwaist workers? In your opinion, should the strikers have softened their demands when owners offered some concessions? Discuss or debate.

"The mink brigade." Who was Anne Morgan and what was her view of the garment workers' strike? Why was Morgan's support and that of the so-called mink brigade "amazing, shocking, and exciting," in the words of historian David von Drehle? How did Morgan's involvement affect media interest in the strike and police treatment of the striking workers? Why did Morgan ultimately resign from the strike committee? Based on details presented in Chapter Four of the film, how might a dialogue on these questions have unfolded between Anne Morgan and Clara Lemlich? Working in groups of two, create such a dialogue and share with group members.

The Fire and Its Aftermath

Causes of the Triangle fire. What caused the fire that broke out at the Triangle factory on March 25, 1911? Who was alerted? Who was not alerted? Who escaped? Who did not escape? What did workers discover when they ran to the Washington Place stairway? Why was this door locked?

Justice denied? How many people died in the Triangle fire? Why were factory owners Harris and Blanck brought up on charges of manslaughter? What was the outcome of this case? In your view, was justice served? Should Blanck and Harris have been held legally responsible for the deaths of the Triangle workers? Discuss.

Legacy of a deadly blaze. What impact did the Triangle fire have on the private system of unregulated industry? What concrete changes did the government institute to make workplaces safer for factory workers? Which of these laws are still in effect at workplaces today? What did Samuel Gompers mean when he said that women had to burn in order to spur government action on labor safety? Review Chapters Five and Six of the film as you consider these questions.


Part Two: Activities and Extensions

Dramatizing a clash. Read the article entitled "Police Mishandle Girl Strike Pickets," published in The New York Times on December 10, 1909. Then, working individually or in a small group, use facts and quotations from the article -- along with details in the Triangle Fire documentary -- as the basis for a script that depicts the interactions among picketing shirtwaist workers, police, and strikebreakers. Present your scene to classmates. To extend this activity, stage a press conference in which members of the class take on the roles of reporters directing questions to the students who have acted out the parts of workers, police, and strikebreakers.

Women who made history. Learn more about one of the women who played a central role in the Triangle story. As a starting point, you can read biographies of Clara Lemlich, Pauline Newman or Anne Morgan online. Supplement these biographies with your own research at the library or online; if possible, locate photographs of the woman you are researching, along with at least one piece of text that she wrote. Then use the materials you have collected to write and illustrate a museum exhibit that highlights this woman's contributions to the shirtwaist workers' strike and to American history.

Creating a memorial. Working with a small group of classmates or community members, imagine that you have been asked by the Mayor of New York to design a memorial to the victims of the Triangle Fire. What would you propose, and why? What information would you want your memorial to impart, and what feelings and emotions would you want it to elicit? Describe the concept for your memorial in writing. You may also choose to create a physical model of the memorial you envision.

A crusader for workers' rights. Watch the bonus video in which writer Kirsten Downey describes the life and work of Frances Perkins. Then prepare an oral or written report in which you describe Perkins' connection to the Triangle fire and her broader significance to the labor movement. In what ways do we continue to feel Perkins' influence today? What does Downey mean when she notes that for Perkins, "It all started that afternoon with the Triangle fire"?

Culminating activity: An American crucible. The film quotes Anzia Yezierska, a Polish-American immigrant and writer, as asking: "Why are we wasting with want? Where is America?" One hundred years after the Triangle fire, what does this story say about America -- both as a nation marked by glaring inequities and injustices but also as a place defined by remarkable opportunities and transformations? What, in other words, is the legacy of the Triangle story and of the 146 workers who lost their lives as a result of the fire? Share your thoughts in an essay, citing historical details and personal anecdotes from the documentary to support your arguments.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

When did your family come to America? Were your parents the first in your family to immigrate to the U.S., or was it someone from an older generation? Did they come seeking opportunity... and did they find it? What was their American dream?