Review: Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (Feb 2011)
The Triangle Fire. Say those words and you might recall a vague memory from high school history class. It’s not the kind of thing you can forget: in 1911, a fire broke out in a New York City factory, killing 146 workers, most of them young women. They were trapped on the top floors of a ten-story building with narrow exits and no sprinklers. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than burn alive, and until September 11, 2001, the Triangle Waist Company Fire was the worst workplace tragedy in New York City history.
Sometimes the aftermath of an event is as important as the event itself. Albert Marrin uses the fire as a starting point to write about major social and labor reform. The book begins with a brief scene from the day of the fire. Marrin then jumps back to explain the circumstances that led up to that tragedy. He writes about immigrant life in the city’s tenements, labor strikes and unions. Ironically, the Triangle Fire was preceeded by one of the most successful strikes in American history. Workers won major concessions in that strike, yet it wasn’t enough to prevent the ensuing tragedy. It took a catastrophe to prompt significant improvements in workplace safety. Today, much of what we take for granted—fire escapes, child labor laws, accessible exits—are direct legacies of the Triangle Fire.
Marrin’s book had me hooked. He writes simply and clearly, and the use of historical photos—some taken by famed photographer Jacob Riis—really brought to life the kind of poverty that would push people into desperate working conditions (incidentally, the book’s title is a direct quote from Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives). Some sections felt like a spy novel or gangster movie, what with the government corruption, mafia-esque deals and hired muscle who worked against the unions (at one point, factory bosses paid prostitutes to break up picket lines using fingernails and hat pins. Stranger than fiction, indeed…) I was glad that Marrin included these details, not just because they’re interesting, but because they show the wider historical landscape. It would be too easy to blame the fire on a couple of rich factory owners. Instead, Marrin reminds us that there was a system at fault, one that involved thousands of people. And if you think these problems have been solved once and for all, the last chapter, which focuses on sweatshops in the developing world (or those hidden from view right here in the U.S.), shows the price we still pay for cheap labor.
Because the book is about everyday people, I was glad that Marrin kept his focus on lesser-known names. Sure, he spends a lot of time on union leaders and famous activists like Frances Perkins (later to become the first female Secretary of Labor), but he quotes generously from regular workers and news articles/poems/songs of the time. He did fall short near the end, when he describes the direct aftermath of the fire. I wanted to know what happened to the survivors: did they ever return to work in a different factory? How did they cope with what we could call PTSD? Marrin writes that Americans donated money to victims’ families—over $3 million by today’s standards. Where did that money go? Was it a big help to the families? Although Marrin mentions the fate of one survivor—”Little Rose” Schneiderman who helped enact major social reform (including the Social Security Act), I wanted to know more about the workers who had to go on with their ordinary lives.
The book ends with an extensive bibliography of related books, and I’ll add mine, which happen to be fiction: Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie (a terrific and depressing tale of the Lowell textile mill strikes) and Bread and Roses, Too (positively chipper in comparison—it explores the strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts that get a brief mention on page 133 of Marrin’s book).