Fire! The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Trial and It's Aftermath

Fire! The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Trial and It's Aftermath
Ellen Wilson: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


   In early spring of 1911, a deadly fire struck the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan.  The ramifications of the fire reached far beyond the high number of deaths, for this single event gave impetus to the leadership of Samuel Gompers and the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  Ellen Wilson was certainly aware of this catastrophe, the subsequent trial, and the growing demand for safety in the workplace.


The purpose of this lesson is to provide students with the opportunity to re-enact one of the most exciting trials of the 20th century, a trial about which few people know.  Careful internet research will be required in order to properly develop the simulation.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to print reference materials


1.  Remind students that understanding both sides of an argument, even if they strongly disagree with one side, is critical to the success of any debate, court case, or argument. 

2.  For this lesson, students are members of the defense team for Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.  It is their task to thoroughly understand not only the events of the fatal fire at the factory but also the rocky road of labor relations in the preceding two years (specifically with regard to women workers), demonstrate an awareness of the points the prosecuting attorneys may address at the trial, and recommend a defense strategy for Blanck and Harris. 

3.  They should also be able to point to the legacy of this case not only in the development of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union but also in terms of laws regarding occupational safety.      

4.  Divide the class into 3 groups after all students are generally familiar with the events of the fire, either through teacher presentation or individual research.  Each of the 3 groups will address one of the following topics:

  • Labor relations and women workers from 1909-1911;
  • Points the prosecutors and the defense will address in their cases (write out the arguments and prepare to present this graphically);
  • Legacy of the fire, both in union history and safety laws and regulations at city, state, and federal levels.

Extending the Lesson:

   The teacher may wish to divide step # 2 above and have students debate the two sides of the case.  Also, students may wish to create posters to illustrate the changes brought about in the aftermath of the fire.  In addition, students could create a brochure or handout detailing each of the 3 steps above.

Sources & Resources:

This lesson was developed by Bette Brooks, Kent State University.