The Fire That Lit the Nation: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Political Transformation

Instructor: Jude Webre
The Workmen’s Circle
247 West 37th St, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10018

On March 25, 1911, just as the young female workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were leaving work for the day, a massive conflagration broke out on the top three floors of the building off Washington Square where the factory was housed. As investigations later revealed, negligent conditions in the sweatshop sparked the fire while, just as crucially, the locked doors of the factory blocked the escape of many workers, leading to a wrenching spectacle as they desperately leaped to the street below. All told, 146 workers – most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants from the Lower East Side – died in the fire that day, making it the deadliest industrial disaster in the city’s history. Like the events of September 11, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was singular in the city’s history, capturing the sympathies of a broader public and galvanizing the drive for labor reforms both locally and nationwide. As political challenges to the power of capital have returned to the forefront in our own era, an in-depth look at the historical factors surrounding this tragic event offers important lessons in the interrelation among organizing, ideology, public spectacle, and state power.

In this immersive Day of Learning, students will use primary sources taken from the Tamiment Library and elsewhere – including newspaper accounts, court transcripts, political speeches, oral histories, and photographs – to examine the circumstances of the fire from several important perspectives. Dr. Jude Webre (Columbia University) will deliver two lectures on the conjuncture of political and social questions before the fire and how its aftermath affected them. This will frame two breakout sessions where students will be given time to read and discuss this key course materials, guided by additional BISR faculty. We will focus on the economic conditions of sweatshop labor and activist approaches to reforming the garment industry, while also considering the social experience of young female workers. We will then examine the debate after the fire, including the impact of the spectacle on the public, the burgeoning labor movement, liberal and radical alternatives to reform, and political and legal consequences in the long term. Discussions will also include short excerpts drawn from Marxist and feminist theory as well as subaltern studies that will help frame the event in a broader theoretical context. The day will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring experts in history, economics, and political theory as well as contemporary labor organizers. Coffee and light refreshments will be provided. No advance preparation is required.


  • Jude Webre

    Jude Webre recently completed his Ph.D. in History at Columbia University and has taught courses at Columbia and for the Brooklyn Institute in U.S. History, American Studies, and Literature Humanities. His work explores the intersection of 20th-century American cultural and political history with modern intellectual history, with a particular interest in the relationship of poetry, aesthetic pragmatism, and cultural democracy.

Event Schedule

Saturday, 11 - 7pm
May 13, 2017

Thanks to a generous donation from one of our supporters, a limited number of seats will be available for $99 until April 28th.


Reserve Space

SKU: MAY17-NY-DOL- Categories: ,