The following activities will prepare your students for a lesson
on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and provide them with a
strong sense of context for the historical event.
Establishing a Personal Connection to History
Explain to your students that you will be examining a historic event
that took place in the year 1911. How many years ago is 1911? Ask
your students to figure it out (89 years).
Tell your students that, although 89 years may seem like a long
time ago, it really isn't in the grand scheme of things. Ask them
to look at the progression of history in another way.
Ask your students to determine the year of their birth by subtracting
their age from the current year (many students may know their birth
year off the top of their head). What year is it? (Assuming you
are working with middle-school students, their answer will be somewhere
Ask your students for a sampling of their parents' ages. Come up
with an average age for your students' parents. . .either you can
come up with a quick mental average, or you can come up with a true
average as a class. How many years older than your students is the
average parent? What year was the average parent of your students
born? (Probably sometime between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s)
Ask your students if anyone happens to know the ages of their grandparents?
Come up with an average age for your students' grandparents. . .either
you can come up with a quick mental average, or you can come up
with a true average as a class. How many years older than your students
was the average grandparent? What year was the average grandparent
of your students born? (Probably some time between the early 1930s
and the late 1940's).
Ask your students how many years were between the average grandparents'
birth and the year 1911. Can your students assume that their grandparents
knew somebody who was alive in the year 1911? Why? Do your students
think there are people still alive who remember the year 1911? Why
or why not? Do your students know anyone who was alive in 1911?
(Anyone over the age of 94, assuming that they are in good health,
can probably remember 1911).
You can then tell your students that, in the grand scheme of things,
1911 isn't that far away. . .they may know someone (or most certainly
know someone who knew someone) who was alive in 1911.
Establishing a Industrial Context for History
Ask your students if they have any ideas how life in 1911 was different
than life in 2000. What do your students think household technology
was like in the year 1911? Brainstorm and get some ideas.
Ask your students to log on to the Technology at Home Web Site.
Go the Household
Technology Activity (www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/tech/). In this
site, they can examine the development of technology throughout
the course of the 20th century.
Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by asking
them to examine and record the household technology available in
the year of their birth, in the year of the class's average parent's
birth, and in the year of the class's average grandparent's birth.
After your students have examined and recorded the information,
a) What technology and products were available to at the time of
the average grandparent's birth?
b) What technology and products were available at the time of the
average parent's birth?
c) What technology and products were available at the time of the
student's birth? How did the technology change over the years?
Ask your class to brainstorm a list of household technology that
they believe would have been available to people living in the year
1911. Ask your students to provide you with "generic" items rather
than specific (i.e., "soda pop" rather than "Coca-Cola"). Write
their list of possibilities on the board, dividing the list into
Divide the class into three groups. Instruct one group of students
log on to the National
Inventors Hall of Fame Index of Inventions (www.invent.org/book/book-index.html).
Instruct the second group of students log on to the About.Com:
Inventions site (http://inventors.about.com/science/inventors/library/bl/bl12.htm).
Instruct the third group of students to log on to The
Lemelson-MIT Program's Invention Dimension site (http://web.mit.edu/invent/www/iarchive.html).
Assign one column of the list of products on the board to each group.
Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask each group to research
and record the dates of invention for the items listed in their
After each group has researched and recorded the dates for their
assigned column, discuss the various invention dates for the items
on your list. How accurate was your list? Are there any surprises?
Establishing a Social/Political Context for History
Now that you have established the "proximity" of the year 1911,
and developed a basic understanding of the technology available
in 1911, ask your students for their ideas on what they think was
happening in the United States at that time. Depending on your students'
prior knowledge, you will get answers ranging from the sinking of
the Titanic to the Civil War.
1911 is towards the end of what historians now call "The Progressive
Era." In 1911, the United States was riding out the tail-end of
The Industrial Revolution. More and more people were moving away
from the country and into the cities to take advantage of job opportunities
available at that time. Industry was flourishing in 1911; there
was a great deal of faith in technology and progress (the Titanic
didn't sink until 1912). Also at this point, the U.S. was in the
midst of great tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
Ask your students to log on the List of Illustrations for Jacob
The Other Half Lives (http://www.cis.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/riis/illustrations.html).
Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask your students to
examine the photographs on the site and record their thoughts on
what they see. Are the people in the photographs happy or sad? Rich
or poor? Clean or dirty? What similarities are there between the
After your students have examined the photographs, discuss their
reactions. What did they find in the pictures?
Explain that the photographs are taken from a book titled How the
Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis. Riis documented the lives of immigrants
on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early part of the twentieth
Ask your students if they have any guesses what the life of a person
their own age would have been like in 1911? If your students do
not do so, point out that many of them would have not been in school,
but rather, they would have been working.
Explain to your students that the event you will be examining took
place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year 1911, in a
factory where many young people—mostly in their teens—were employed.
End of Class One
Contact a local fire station and arrange for a visit to discuss
fire safety and fire regulations. As an alternative activity, conduct
an online interview with an area firefighter.
Contact OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety
and Health Administration) and arrange for an OSHA representative
to visit your classroom to discuss workplace safety, Federal workplace
regulations, and alternatives for workers in dangerous work situations.
As an alternative activity, conduct an online interview with an
Research and develop fire safety workshops, and share them
with other students in your school or students at an elementary
school in your district.
Contact UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile
Employees (www.uniteunion.org) and conduct an online or in-person
interview regarding sweatshop practices in the United States and
Research the unions represented in your community. What trades
do they represent? How long have they been present in the community?
What services do they provide to their members?
Explain to your students that you will now be examining a historical
event that took place in a garment factory on the Lower East Side
of Manhattan in the year 1911. You will be exploring this event
through the use of video.
Insert NEW YORK A DOCUMENTARY FILM into your VCR.
Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking
them to raise their hands when they can name three of the conditions
workers faced in factories and sweatshops during the early 20th
Century. START the tape when the screen is filled with black-and-white
film footage of people sitting at two long rows of sewing machines,
and a woman's voice is saying, "You might be working a sixteen to
twenty hour day. . ." PLAY the tape until you hear the male narrator
say, "to keep out union organizers, and keep the women focused on
their jobs." PAUSE the tape.
Check for comprehension, and ask your students to list some of the
conditions that workers faced in garment factories.
Remind your students that the video said that "foremen set brutal
quotas." Ask your students if they can define what a quota is.
Remind your students that the video also mentioned that the doors
were locked "to keep out union organizers." Ask your students if
they can define what a union is.
Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, and ask
them to raise their hand when they hear what the typical working
hours were in a garment factory. PLAY the tape, until the screen
is filled with a picture of a young woman, and a female voice is
says, "The hissing of the machines, the yelling of the foremen,
made life unbearable." STOP the tape.
Ask your students what problems there might be if people are working
under the conditions they have just seen described. What potential
dangers would there be?
FAST FORWARD the tape until the screen is filled with a still image
of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and the male narrator is saying,
"Late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, the 500 employees
of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company were racing to fill their quotas."
Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking
them to raise their hands when they discover the reason why the
fire in the factory spread so quickly.
PLAY the tape, until the screen is filled with an image of sewing
machines and flames, and a female voice says, ". . .some were screaming,
some were beating the door with their fists, some were trying to
tear it open." PAUSE the tape.
Ask students for the reason why the fire spread through the factory
so quickly. Ask students to predict what might have happened as
a result of the fire. How do they think the workers might have escaped?
FAST FORWARD the tape to the still black and white image of a man
with a mustache and a policemen, where the narrator is saying, "By
now, dozens of women at a time were standing at the eighth and ninth
floor windows, all but engulfed by the inferno."
Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking
them to determine what had happened the year before the Triangle
Fire. PLAY the tape, until the image of two dead young women fills
the screen, and a male voice is saying, ". . . and these dead bodies
were the answer."
Ask your students what the garment workers did the year before the
fire. Ask them what their feelings and thoughts are now that they
know what happened at the Triangle Factory.
In all, 146 people--most of them teenage girls--died in the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Factory workers died as a result of being
burned to death, of smoke inhalation, or because they jumped from
the eighth and ninth floor windows.
After the fire, the two owners of the Triangle Factory were put
on trial for charges of manslaughter. However, they were both acquitted.
. .because they had not broken any laws governing workplace conditions.
As the result of the outrage of concerned citizens, and a four-year
long government investigation, laws were put into place to improve
factory conditions and safety measures.
In order to help students understand the restrictive and dangerous
environment that garment workers endured, try this "Assembly Line"
activity with your students.
Step 1. Divide your students into groups
of five. Provide each group of students with an envelope containing
the pieces of five cut-up paper squares (use the patterns attached
to this lesson to cut up your paper squares). Ask the students to
pass the envelope around their group, with each person removing
one piece each time the envelope comes to them. Continue passing
the envelope around the group and removing pieces until there are
no pieces left in the envelope.
Step 2. Remind your students that the
workers in the Triangle Company were assembling shirtwaists, a blouse
type garment that was made assembly-line style. Ask your students
to remind you of some of the conditions the garment workers in the
Triangle Factory had to endure (i.e., no talking, no going to the
bathroom, no humming, working from sunrise to sunset, etc.). What
do they think the problems would be with this type of environment?
Would it aid in production, or be counter-productive?
Step 3. Ask each group of students to assemble five perfect
squares from the pieces they took out of the envelope, fitting them
together jigsaw-puzzle style. However, instruct students that they
cannot talk, whisper, grunt, groan, or make any noises whatsoever
during the assembly process. They also may not get up from their
seats, or look at what the other groups are doing.
Step 4. While the students are assembling the squares, put
yourself in the role of the foreman in a turn-of-the century sweatshop.
If any student talks, moves, or otherwise breaks the rules, remove
them from their group and let the group continue to work on assembly.
Step 5. Give the groups anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to
complete the assembly of the five perfect squares (some groups may
not be able to complete the task in the time allotted). After completing
the activity, ask your students how the activity made them feel.
Challenged? Threatened? Excited? What?
Ask the students who were removed from the "assembly line" how they
felt when they were taken out of the group.
Ask your students what parallels can be drawn between the activity
and the plight of the workers in the Triangle Factory. How did the
activity deepen their understanding of working conditions? What
changes do they think have been made governing workplace safety
since the Triangle Fire? Ask your students to support their answers
End of Class Two
SOCIAL STUDIES/LANGUAGE ARTS/TECHNOLOGY
Visit Cornell's excellent Web site on The
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/cover.html),
and listen to one of the oral histories of a Triangle survivor.
Conduct interviews with older relatives or friends about their first
job work experience. What year was it? What was their job? How much
were they paid? How long did they stay with the job?
Record and transcribe the interview. Develop a class oral history
web site based on the transcripts of the interviews.
Shirtwaists, the garments produced in the Triangle Factory, were
made popular and immortalized by artist Charles Dana Gibson. Research
the life and art of Charles Dana Gibson, or investigate clothing
and fashion trends during the first two decades of the 20th century.
Complete further research on the Triangle Factory Fire. Who were
the key individuals? Who were the survivors? What was the outcome
of the trial held following the fire?
Assign students to research individuals involved with the fire.
Assign students to play the roles of judge, lawyers, jury, witnesses,
etc. Improvise a mock trial, in which witnesses to the fire testify
as to their experiences. As an alternate activity, have students
write and perform excerpts from a trial transcript, or diary entries
from fire survivors.
What other large-scale catastrophic fires
have occurred in the 20th century? Research disasters such as the
Chicago Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903, the San Francisco Earthquake
and Fire of 1906, the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, and Boston's
Coconut Grove Fire in 1942. What were the causes and consequences
of each fire?
What fire-retardant materials are used in building construction
today? What makes a substance "fireproof"? What happens when you
try to burn fireproof materials? Conduct research and supervised
lab work to find the answers to these questions.