On the evening of March 25th, 1911, many workers at the Triangle Waist Factory were preparing to end their working day when suddenly a fire began on the upper floors of the factory (ILR School Kheel Center). Because of inadequate fire escapes and locked doors, 146 factory workers, mostly young women and girls, perished in the blaze (ILR School Kheel Center).
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Left behind from this horrible event are a vast quantity of first hand accounts of the events that took place during and after the fire. There are many advantages and disadvantages to using primary sources as a means of accurately recounting historical events. The primary sources that provide the best means, however, of understanding the facts of an event are newspaper articles and photographs.
There are a few advantages to having primary sources when it comes to understanding the impact of a historical event. One of these advantages comes from personal accounts of the event. For example, in anticipation of the fifty year anniversary of the fire, Leon Stein began interviewing women who had survived the fire and after one interview notes: “Mrs. Dworetz learned in this interview for the first time that there was a fire escape” (Leon Stein Interviews).
He also interviewed another woman who stated in her interview that, “The Washington and Greene St. doors were always closed” (Leon Stein Interviews). From some of these testimonials, one can imagine the panic the women must have felt to be essentially trapped in a burning building. Without these interviews, it would be difficult for someone to imagine what went on inside the buildings.
Another advantage of primary sources comes from the photographs taken during the fire and of the aftermath. There were several photographs taken of the factory after the fire and it is clear that the path for the women and other workers was blocked (ILR School Kheel Center). Also, photographs add a very human element to historical tragedies, as some of the photographs taken are of women who had jumped from the buildings in hopes of avoiding being burnt (ILR School Kheel Center).
Newspaper articles should be the best source of primary information. For example, upon reading the articles printed the day of the fire, one can get a very clear picture of and the chaos that surrounded the events. The articles also point out flaws in the fire department equipment and the factory construction that lead to many more deaths (ILR School Kheel Center).
While there are advantages to primary sources, it should be noted that there are also disadvantages to using them solely to understand historical events. While Stein interviewed survivors, he did so fifty years after the event had taken place. It is possible that, due to the event being so tragic, the survivors did remember exactly what had taken place, but it cannot be fully trusted as an accurate account of the event.
It should not be assumed, however, that all these accounts are false or full of misinformation. Photographs can often also provide one with misinformation. They only capture a particular moment in time. As for newspaper articles, a reporter could potentially exaggerate the extremity of a situation in order for more people to buy and read the newspaper. Reporters can also sway the public to believe one thing or another to further perhaps a political or social cause.
Judging from the advantages and disadvantages, it is clear that newspaper articles and photographs are the best primary sources to use in understanding historical events. In the case of the Triangle Waist Factory fire, these sources provide accounts for what happened immediately during and after the fire.
The newspaper articles give immediate witness and survivor testimony showing the public the flaws in the factory and the fire department. Because of these immediate types of accounts, reforms were able to take place to make safer working conditions as well as better prepare the fire departments to deal with multi-story buildings. Although it took a tragedy to bring about these changes, future workers would benefit from the senseless deaths of so many young women, men, and children.
ILR School Kheel Center. Remembering the Triangle Factory Fire. Cornell University, 2011. Web.
“Leon Stein Interviews.” Ilr.cornell.edu. Cornell University, 2011. Web.