The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.
By Janice Harayda
Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.
This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.
But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.
Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”
Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.
Published: February 2011
Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.
Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.