What do the documents taken together inform us about conditions in the garment industry at the beginning of the Twentieth century?


This assignment is designed to help you review primary documents in order to better understand a tragic industrial event that happened as part of understanding US labor history. This module will be tied to our future lessons on the early Twentieth century and the impact of the Progressive Era reforms.

Great tragedies often reveal much about social conditions and the historical problems confronting people. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was just such an event. The news of this fire in a garment factory in New York City created a sensation across the United States partly because of the great loss of life, primarily young immigrant girls, and partly because the Progressive Movement and organized labor had been exposing the unhealthy working conditions under which millions Americans and foreign-born workers earned wages. Part of the shock was the fact that it occurred in New York State, which at the time had some of the most progressive labor regulations in the country. The Triangle Fire would have a profound impact on the acceptance of labor organizations, particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the shape of their activities for years. While changes were affected, it may be the biggest tragedy of all that the conditions that created the Triangle Fire continue to exist in the garment industry in the United States to a limited degree, but are often the norm of garment manufacturing in third world countries today.

The issues raised by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire still resonate in the debate over universities making money off sports apparel manufactured under sweatshop conditions.
The primary goal (1) of this web primary research module assignment is to evaluate the information contained at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on-line archive maintained by The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University. A secondary goal (2) is to decide what information within each section of the on-line archives is most useful in understanding the causes, events, and results of this fire. A third (3) goal is to develop a sense of document bias (for whom is the document written and what is the authors perspective on the matter(s)). Lastly, (4) you will be asked to determine if there is historical information lacking which you feel necessary to understand the historical context of this event. The exercise is to be conducted in the following way:

Assignment components:

Part I. For the preliminary analysis of the documents do the following:

Read over the entire history of the fire section and then review the other sections selecting five, different types of primary documents you feel best tell the story of the fire (either together as a group of documents or separately provide pivotal information in them). Remember, primary documents are those that tell what happened typically in the moments that follow and event (e.g. letters, notes, reports, investigation notes, newspapers and magazines, and sometimes how events play out in popular culture).
Describe the contents of the selected documents (total of 500-600 words about the documents you selected).

Building on the preliminary analysis write a report that explains the causes and responses to the fire.
What do the documents taken together inform us about conditions in the garment industry at the beginning of the Twentieth century?
What evidence best supports your analysis.
After reviewing the materials try to put yourself in the place of a middle- class American living in 1911 (in other words, not a worker in the factory but someone who was wealthier and reading about it in the newspapers). What do you think would have been your reaction to the news and the investigation? Explain why you think this would be your response.
Provide a works cited page at the end of the two essays, noting which five primary documents you selected.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on-line archive contains the following sections:

Story of the fire (start here and read through all the sections by clicking the continue button to get an overview of the events)
Victims and Witnesses (click on the persons name and read details in the bottom right-hand corner or click on the death certificate from that area as well)
Primary sources Note this is where you should spend the bulk of your time selecting primary sources that will help you best understand the fire and its long-term impact
Supplemental resources (the map of the 9th floor is helpful in this area)
Legacy (there are also some primary sources in this area that may be useful to your analysis as well)

How to navigate this website and questions to ask while you select your documents for the preliminary analysis (part I):

Go to the web site http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/story/introduction.html

Read the Story of the Fire.
Briefly look over the other sections.
Determine which section(s) contain the most relevant materials required to understand what happened to cause the fire. Think about why they are the most important.
Who was most likely to die in the fire?
What sections best explain the background to the fire? Why?
Are there documents that support each other? Which ones?
Are there documents that contradict other documents?
Do you find gaps in the documents? What kinds of documents would fill those gaps?
Are there any serious biases in the materials and the way they are presented?
Note: these are questions to ponder as you select your documents for your preliminary analysis (part 1) and your final analysis (part 2).

Please type up your research module as one document (noting Part I and Part II). You will write the responses in an essay format using Times New Roman 12-point font and double-spacing. Include 1 margins on all sides and submit by the above noted date.

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