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Interpreting the Evidence

Two Factory Workers, c. 1912

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York City
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Two Factory Workers, c. 1912 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Two factory workers pose among industrial equipment with no safety guards and in unsanitary conditions, c. 1912.
Historical Context
The United States underwent an Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, approximately 100 years after the start of the British Industrial Revolution. Three general developments helped spur the birth of the large-scale American factory. First, the United States had dedicated itself in the previous fifty years to the development of a vast network of transportation and communication possibilities. The nation had railroads, steamships, telegraphs, and canals, which created larger economic opportunities. Second, the use of electricity allowed for a more flexible, longer workday because the factories were not dependent on sunlight or candles. Third, scientists and engineers of this era began to apply their expertise to the manufacturing of goods. The result of these trends was innovations in the production of machines, metal, chemicals, and food. Thus the age of the large American factory was born.

Factory life was harsh and treacherous. Factory owners largely ignored safety regulations and working conditions in their factories.  With no legislative body overseeing the many industries, workers toiled in inhumane and deadly conditions. In Monongahela, West Virginia, in 1908, a major accident caused by the lack of safety inspections and regulations killed 354 coal miners in a single day.

Conditions were appalling here in New York as well. In New York City in 1911, a major fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory killed 146 people, mainly women. This tragedy occurred when a fire broke out in the factory, which occupied the top three floors of a ten-story building. Although the workers panicked, the people on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape. But workers on the ninth floor were trapped by illegally blocked exits. A few days later, a massive funeral parade was held throughout the city.  Within a week of this tragedy, a fire broke out in the Albany Capitol Building, destroying many important state documents and artifacts.

These two events had a major impact on fire and safety regulations. New York State formed a Factory Investigating Commission to inspect factories in all the major cities of New York. The committee was charged with finding fire hazards, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases, and with inspecting tenements. This committee inspected 3,385 locations in 1911 and 1912, including meat packaging plants, bakeries, clothing manufacturers, chemical plants, and lead trade manufacturing plants.

Essential Question
How does industrialization change a society?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the affect of industrialization on these individuals and their working environment.