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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Exploring Tragedy and Reform with Primary Sources

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Detail, New-York tribune, March 26, 1911
Detail, New-York tribune, March 26, 1911

Most of us take safe working conditions for granted, but few of us reflect that many of the regulations keeping us safe grew out of tragedy. On March 25, 1911, a fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, killing 146 men and women, many of them recent immigrants. It was later discovered that the workers faced many obstacles as they tried to flee the fire: Doors were locked by the factory’s management and the fire escapes were inadequate. This catastrophe, which led to a public outcry, prompted updates to labor laws and reforms to fire and safety regulations.

Immersing students in primary sources about the fire can help them develop an understanding of what happened. Primary sources can also help them understand how the event drove substantive legislative change.

Students may examine newspaper reports of the fire and attempted rescues to construct a narrative of events. The New-York Tribune report from the day after the fire provides a rich starting place for them to gather information, develop an understanding of the context, and test hypotheses.

Ask students to:

  • Scan the dateline and the headline to establish what happened, when it happened, and where it happened.
    Girls Wanted [1916] drawing
    Girls Wanted [1916]
  • Ask students to read the sub-heads and then write a hypothesis about the cause of the high death toll, supported with evidence. They may use the format “I think ___caused the deaths because the newspaper says ___.”
  • Jigsaw activity: Assign or allow students to self-select one story from the page to read and analyze in depth, then jigsaw students. Groups may construct a timeline of events, including factors contributing to the many deaths, and then spend a few minutes comparing their timelines to those of other groups.
  • Assess thinking: Ask each student to revise his or her original hypothesis about the cause of the high death toll, perhaps as an exit card. They may use the format “I used to think __ caused the deaths, but now I think ___ because___.”

To understand the impact of this tragic event, students may read the New-York Tribune article “Asch Building Fire Helps to Better Laws.” You may find questions and follow up activity ideas to support your students’ work with this complex text in the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Books and Other Printed Texts. (The article prompted me to explore just a bit to learn more about the Hoey Law. I still don’t know much, but I found interesting clues in this New York Sun article.)

Related resources:

More newspaper reports: Topics in Chronicling America – Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire;

Images. Students may look for clues about the after effects of the fire in the 1916 drawing “Girls Wanted.” (Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs and Prints for questions to deepen students thinking about the images.)

Details about the fire and subsequent legislation: “A Factory, a Fire, and Worker Safety.

Add a comment to let us know what questions your students ask and what discoveries they make.



Comments (6)

  1. Thank you. I am going to use your suggestions with my adult GED students to help them build research and read comprehension skills on a U.S. Constitution task.

  2. Excellent blog post with great teaching resources and ideas. Thank you!

  3. I would like to know more about where you got your pictures, essentially “Girls Wanted” {1916}. It would be a big help, thanks!

    • The images are available by clicking on the word “images” under related resources. “Girls Wanted” is in the list and also is available here: If you use any of the pictures, please do let us know how your students respond!

  4. Dear The Museum of NYC,

    We are 8th-grade students from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This year we have been assigned to work on a National History Day project. My partner and I have chosen to do a project on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. We are wondering if you have any digital sources available about the tragedy and the resulting trial. We are really looking for primary sources. This would be greatly appreciated and would help our project as well!

    Thank you,
    Anastasia M. and Ella M.

    • Dear Anastasia and Ella,
      That’s a splendid starting point for a project! There are many primary sources in this blog post that you might explore for ideas how to shape your project. After you explore those and have a more focused idea about what you’re looking for, you might direct your question to the Library of Congress Ask a Librarian service:
      Best of luck with your project!
      Cheryl Lederle

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