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The Triangle Fire and the limits of Progressivism

Frances Brewer Jensen, University of Massachusetts Amherst


One hundred and forty-six women, most of them young immigrants, died in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City's Lower East Side on March 25, 1911. One of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the United States, it confirmed the belief of progressives that unregulated industrialism had gone awry. This tragedy, however, have rise to a campaign for protective labor legislation in the Empire State and provided historians with an example of the reform impulse in the years prior to World War I. This dissertation makes the case, both implicitly and explicitly, that this disaster, if examined in both a social and a political context, can be used to increase our understanding of three broad aspects of the history and historiography of the progressive era. First, it can help us to evaluate the debate among historians over the true extent and effectiveness of the reform movement. Secondly, it will help us examine how coalitions of diverse and incompatible groups temporarily united to demand reform legislation, and finally it can allow us to interweave many histories of the era--the immigrant experience, American radicalism, trade unionism, the suffrage movement, and progressive reform--that formerly have been analyzed as separate stories. The idea of limitations is emphasized in each of the dissertation's predominate themes. The reform initiative, in terms of both its liberalism and the effectiveness of the legislation it produced were limited. Furthermore, the degree of cooperation generated by the reform coalition that responded to the Triangle Fire was temporary and produced few enduring associations. The ongoing historical debate regarding the meaning and the results of progressivism has produced extensive but incoherent opinions which call for further scholarly clarification. This dissertation not only provides a framework for further analyzing the events surrounding the Triangle Fire, it also produces additional information about progressivism--its membership, its goals, its achievements, and the political and social environment which produced the movement.

Subject Area

American history|Labor relations

Recommended Citation

Jensen, Frances Brewer, "The Triangle Fire and the limits of Progressivism" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9638978.