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Lesson Plans
Fire in the Sky:
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Causes and Consequences

By Christopher Czajka
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 Three 45-minute class periods


In the spring of 1911, a small fire broke out in the workshops of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the eastern edge of Washington Square Park in New York City. As a result of an accumulation of highly flammable fabrics in the workshops, the fire quickly spread and soon engulfed the upper floors of the Factory. Triangle's mostly immigrant employees soon found that the doors leading out of the upper floors were locked, and that other safety precautions in the building were faulty or nonexistent. To escape the smoke and flames, many of the Factory's workers -- most of them teenage girls -- jumped from the eighth and ninth floor windows to the sidewalks below. 146 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which led to an outcry for labor reform and regulation.

Through the activities presented in this lesson, students will be become familiar with the conditions facing factory laborers in the early part of the 20th century, as well as the causes and consequences of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. In addition, students will contextualize the Triangle fire in relation to their own personal histories and knowledge of 20th century events.

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:

  • Contextualize an event from the early 20th century via their own prior knowledge and personal histories;
  • Describe the conditions facing factory workers in the early 20th century;
  • Identify the major causes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire;
  • Explain the immediate consequences of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire;
  • Articulate the challenges facing workers in restrictive environments after a first-hand, hands-on experience;
  • Compare labor conditions in the early 20th century to labor conditions today.


From the National Standards for History, grades 5-12

1) Students will think chronologically; that is, they will distinguish between present and past events while establishing temporal order via their own historical narratives. Students will work backward from some issue, problem, or event to explain its origins and developments over time. (NSH 1A and 1C)

2) Analyze cause-and-effect relationships, bearing in mind multiple causation, including a) the importance of the individual in history; b) the influence of ideas, human interests, and beliefs; and c) the role of chance, the accidental, and the irrational. (NSH 3C)

3) Draw comparisons across eras and regions in order to define enduring issues, as well as large-scale or long-term developments that transcend regional or temporal boundaries. (NSH 3D)

4) Explain how business leaders sought to maximize profits in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (NSH, Era 6 1A)

5) Analyze how working conditions changed and workers responded to new industrial conditions. (NSH, Era 6 3A)

Media Components

New York: A Documentary Film, Episode 4: The Power and the People.

Web sites:

Technology at Home

This web site, a tie-in to the PBS series Nova, examines the development of household technology over the course of the twentieth century. Students can explore an online kitchen, furnished as it would have appeared from 1900 to 1998. Requires Shockwave.

National Inventors Hall of Fame: Index of Inventions

An alphabetical index of inventions and their inventors.

About.Com: Historical Inventions

An alphabetical index of web sites dedicated to various inventions and their inventors.

The Lemelson-MIT Program's Invention Dimension

An alphabetical index of inventions, with links to an inventor search and an "Inventor of the Week" feature

List of Illustrations for Jacob Riis' How The Other Half Lives

A site with links to the illustrations of Jacob Riis' groundbreaking book that exposed the conditions of immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900s.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Produced by Cornell University and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!), this comprehensive site on the Triangle Fire includes lists of victims and survivors, chronology of the fire, audio files of survivor recollections, as well as information on labor conditions and sweatshops. Also included are links to other Triangle-related sites and the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union Web site.


For each group of five students:
Five paper squares cut into pieces, using the attached patterns as a guide for cutting. The pieces of the squares should be "scrambled up" to prevent quick and easy re-assembly. Remember, each GROUP of five students will need five cut-up squares.

For each student:
Pencil and paper