2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Albert Marrin

Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy

Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

Albert Marrin


On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames. The factory was crowded. The doors were locked to ensure workers stayed inside. One hundred forty-six people—mostly women—perished; it was one of the most lethal workplace fires in American history until September 11, 2001.

But the story of the fire is not the story of one accidental moment in time. It is a story of immigration and hard work to make it in a new country, as Italians and Jews and others traveled to America to find a better life. It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet. It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster. And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.


Albert Marrin is the author of more than three dozen books for young adults, including Saving the Buffalo (2006) and The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America (2007), numerous books for children, and four scholarly books. He has won several awards, including the 2008 National Humanities Medal, the Carter G. Woodson Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, and the James Madison Book Award.


On March 25, the cutters prepared for their next day’s work. Since it was Saturday, everyone would leave early, at 4:45 p.m. Workers from other firms had already left; Triangle employees had to stay longer to fill back orders. Carefully, cutters spread “lawn” (from the French word lingerie) on their tables 120 layers thick. Lawn was not just any cotton fabric. Sheer and lightweight, it was beautiful and comfortable—and burned as easily as gasoline. Each layer was separated from the others by a sheet of equally flammable tissue paper.

By 4:40 P.M., the cutters had finished their work. With five minutes to go, they stood around, talking until the quitting bell rang. Although it was against the rules, some lit cigarettes, hiding the smoke by blowing it up their jacket sleeves. On the floor above, workers had begun to walk toward the lockers to get their coats and hats. They looked forward to Sunday, and family visits, boyfriends, dances, and nickelodeons. Although they had no inkling of what was about to happen, many had only minutes to live.

We will never know for sure what started the Triangle Fire. Most likely, a cutter flicked a hot ash or tossed a live cigarette butt into a scrap bin. Whatever the cause, survivors said the first sign of trouble was smoke pouring from beneath a cutting table.

Cutters flung buckets of water at the smoking spot, without effect. Flames shot up, igniting the line of hanging paper patterns. "They began to fall on the layers of thin goods underneath them," recalled cutter Max Rothen. "Every time another piece dropped, light scraps of burning fabric began to fly around the room. They came down on the other tables and they fell on the machines. Then the line broke and the whole string of burning patterns fell down." A foreman ran for the hose on the stairway wall. Nothing! No water came. The hose had not been connected to the standpipe. Seconds later, the fire leaped out of control.


From FLESH AND BLOOD SO CHEAP: THE TRIANGLE FIRE AND ITS LEGACY by Albert Marrin, copyright © 2011 by Albert Marrin.  Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.