Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy
, a young adult nonfiction book by historian Albert Marrin, is a detailed chronicle of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Building fire in 1911, a workplace tragedy that paved the way for workplace safety laws in twentieth-century America. Published by Alfred A. Knoff in 2011 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster, the book covers the events of the fire, uncovering the unequal social climate and unfair working conditions that led to the unnecessary deaths of 146 people. The book is recommended for young adults aged twelve years and older.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory was a garment factory located in Greenwich Village on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building then called the Asch Building. It still exists today and is now known as the Brown building, owned by New York University. The factory made “shirtwaists,” a type of women’s blouse, and employed mostly young female Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked for low-wages seven days a week.
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out. According to survivors, the fire was first noticed on the eighth floor where smoke was rising from beneath a table. Buckets of water were thrown on the area, but it continued to spread. Soon the flames grew higher and caught onto hanging paper, which fell down onto the garment cutting machines. A hose was found in the stairway, but, disconnected from a water supply, was of no use.
According to Marrin, it is not clear what started the fire. It could have been cigarette butts from the workers or a malfunction of one of the sewing machines.
The shirtwaists were made from a sheer cotton fabric that was lightweight and highly flammable. This along with other flammable materials in the room caused the fire to spread quickly. Further, there were no available fire extinguishers or other firefighting equipment. Workers were also not trained in what to do during an emergency.
The firehouse was just six blocks away and firemen came quickly. Despite the dangers of using elevators in a fire, operators made trips with the two passenger elevators to bring down as many people as possible, saving lives. Everyone on the eighth floor ultimately made it out alive despite almost trampling each other to escape the building.
The fire moved quickly to the ninth floor when the eighth-floor windows exploded from the expanding hot air. The factory workers became trapped because, even though there were two stairwells exits, one of them was blocked by flames and the other one, the Washington Street stairwell, was locked by the factory owners. Doors were often kept locked to reduce the threat of theft and also to discourage people from coming late to work. They were also locked to keep out union organizers. Tragically, nobody who tried for the Washington Street exit survived.
It was a ninety-five-foot jump for those who decided to leap from the windows. Firefighters put out safety nets to catch the jumpers, but people hit the net with such a force that they tore through it and hit the ground. The fire escape was not equipped to carry the weight of so many people and it collapsed.
The building itself was afterward declared fireproof, but the internal fixtures and woodwork, along with the people, were not. It is apparent from Marrin’s account of the disaster that the factory owners did not take into account the well being of their workers.
The youngest of the 146 deaths was a fourteen-year-old girl. The oldest was forty-three.
The event was the greatest loss of life incident in New York City until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The dramatic imagery makes it difficult for readers not to relate the two historic events in their mind.
Before the fire, many ambitious men and women had tried to begin a safety movement for immigrants taking risks with their lives in dangerous jobs, but it wasn’t until the Triangle Factory Fire that those movements gained momentum and led to the social reforms and fire safety laws that many Americans take for granted today.
The story is not only of a workplace disaster but also a tale of the lives led by new immigrants and the daily sacrifices made to start a new life in America. It describes in detail the conditions of sweatshops and their origins, as well as the brave activism that radicalized factory conditions for the better as laborers stood up to greedy business owners.
The book ends on a cautionary note, reminding readers of fires in recent history, such as the garment factory fires in Bangladesh, where the desire for cheap labor is still costing many lives. He emphasizes the “short memory” of human beings in relation to the tragedies of the past.