Background Information: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

TA Noel P. pairs a book taking place in 1911 New York with an informative research about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire…

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is set in turn-of-the-century America, and focused on two very different teenagers: Coralie, a “mermaid” in her father’s abusive freak show on Coney Island, whose diminishing audience forces her into darker acts; and Eddie, a Ukrainian immigrant who struggles with relationships with his father, and learning to live in a new and unfamiliar world during one of the most exciting times in history. While this novel is mainly about these two characters and what they come to discover about themselves in their troubled lives, one of the most fascinating aspects about this novel is the setting. Set in the time period right on the brink of WWI, social status and class are being reimagined, immigrant identities are becoming more prevalent, forms of entertainment are evolving, and so many other things come to life. In this time period, France was going through their “Belle Epoque,” and US itself was experiencing its “Gilded Age.” The world was, mostly, at peace.

But that’s in the span of the entire world, and what Hoffman does is show not the warfare of country against country, but the tragedy of life, and the internal warfare that occurs underneath the gold and the glitz and the propaganda. Undoubtedly the biggest tragedy portrayed in this book is the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire–one of the darkest consequences of industrialization in the US and the abuse on its workforce. The fire not only serves to juxtapose the backdrop setting of the novel, but also to act as a sobering catalyst for the characters’ lives.

A photograph of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

For more information on this time period, especially on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, visit Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire. Put together by Cornell University, this website has background information on the Triangle Factory Fire, as well as primary source interviews, documents, images, and the names and basic information on all victims of the fire. Check it out!


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