45 pages 1 hour read

Albert Marrin

Flesh and Blood So Cheap

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy (2011) is a historical nonfiction book intended for an audience of young readers. It was written by Albert Marrin, a former history professor and author of dozens of historical nonfiction books.

Marrin, whose academic focus was on liberty under the law, wrote often about times of suffering and movements for liberation, including The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution (1988), Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl (2009), and Uprooted: The Japanese American (2016).

Flesh and Blood So Cheap was published 100 years after the fire it depicts. The book won awards, including the Booklist Editors’ Choice in 2011 and the Amelia Bloomer Book List award in 2012. Marrin has received the James Madison Book Award for lifetime achievement and the National Endowment for Humanities Medal.

This guide uses the Kindle e-book edition of the book.

Content Warning: The book contains graphic depictions of human suffering and loss of life due to inequality, poor living conditions, and fire.


Flesh and Blood So Cheap tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which remained New York’s deadliest workplace incident until the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The book offers a detailed explanation of the situation in New York at the time of the fire, highlighting immigration trends, the effects of industrialization, and the budding labor movement in the United States.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory manufactured the popular new “shirtwaist,” a women’s blouse that had become associated with women’s liberation. The factory employed mostly young Jewish and Italian women, some as young as 14. The factory occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, a modern structure that was ostensibly fireproof. The women worked seven days a week for very low wages and were often exploited and criticized by factory bosses, whose job was to ensure that the workers were productive for every moment of their long shifts.

A fire broke out on Saturday, March 25, 1911. It was likely caused by cigarette embers flicked into a basket of fabric scraps on the eighth floor, though it could also have been caused by a malfunctioning machine. The fabric caught fire quickly and the blaze soon spread. Paper pattern pieces hanging above the machines also ignited. The fire became so intense that the eighth-floor windows exploded, allowing the fire to spread upward to the ninth and tenth floors. The fine fabric used to make shirtwaists was extremely flammable; the ninth-floor fire raged out of control.

Factory workers were trapped in the building by doors that opened inward; those nearest could not swing them open because the crowd pressed its entire weight against the doors, preventing them from opening. Other exit doors were locked by factory owners and bosses to avoid theft or block union organizers from entering the building. A fire hose was tried, but it had never been connected to the water supply on the roof. Narrow staircases slowed evacuation efforts, and an elevator taking people to safety failed when the track became warped by the heat.

Eighth-floor workers eventually escaped, but those on the ninth floor were not so lucky. Unable to get through the doors or down a loosely connected fire escape, many ninth-floor workers leaped from the windows to a less painful death than being burned alive. It was a 90-foot fall to the ground, which rendered firefighter emergency nets useless. The ladders on the fire trucks did not extend high enough to reach the windows and save the workers. The building survived the tragedy, but 146 workers did not. The youngest of the victims was 14 years old; the oldest was 43.

The book also details the context of labor relations and conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Labor unions had been established for male-dominated industries, but women’s labor unions were slower to catch on. At the time, women did not have the right to vote and were seen as unfit for political action and discourse. Male labor unionizers did not view women, who were the primary garment workers, as equals. They believed it was not worth unionizing women workers because they would not share men’s “drive” or “fighting spirit” (76).

Nevertheless, women organizers worked hard to communicate their unionizing message through the community. They held meetings and found influential friends to help promote their cause. This organizing led to the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000, a massive, 11-week labor strike in the garment industry. Owners and Democratic Party leaders hired muscle to assault the women, convinced corrupt police to arrest them, and relied on misogynistic judges to sentence them to workhouses. Despite these tactics, the women persevered and won significant concessions from factory owners. None of the concessions were enough to prevent the Triangle fire from happening, but working conditions were improved.

The book concludes by comparing early 20th-century working conditions in the United States and 21st-century working conditions in developing countries like Bangladesh. Some economists suggest that the sweatshop model is in some ways a part of the industrialization process; these economists argue that even sweatshop and factory jobs are an improvement for people who may otherwise only be able to earn a living by picking through landfills for recyclables to trade for money. Ultimately, Marrin highlights the importance of learning and remembering history as a way to avoid repeating it. He emphasizes the importance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in instigating improvements in worker safety.

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