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FLESH AND BLOOD SO CHEAP

Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 9 years, 1 month ago

14 February 2011 FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP:  THE TRIANGLE FIRE AND ITS LEGACY
by Albert Marrin, Knopf, February 2011, 192p.,  ISBN: 978-0-375-86889-4

  

"...When you get caught
Between the moon and New York City..."
-- Christopher Cross, Burt Bacharach, and Carole Bayer Sager, "Arthur's Theme"

 

 
"Fire safety did not 'pay.'  It did not pay the insurance industry, since safer buildings lowered insurance costs, reducing the earnings of insurance sellers, called brokers.  They made their living by keeping a percentage of the cost of a policy sold to a client.  High-risk clients paid higher rates, raising agents' incomes.
"Safety did not 'pay' factory owners either.  Let's say an owner had many unsold garments at the end of the summer season.  A fire might be a good business move, ridding him of extra stock while allowing him to collect its value from his insurance company.  Arson was a big business in New York.  Certain gangsters specialized in torching garment shops -- for a price.  The insurance companies seldom made a fuss, because their total profits were still greater than the claims they paid to individual owners.  Owners did not install sprinklers because that cost money; they also thought they might have to burn their shops later.  Fire drills, owners feared, might raise suspicions about their intentions.  Besides, time spent on a fire drill took away from work time.  No laws required owners to have sprinklers or hold fire drills.
"And the workers?  What of them?  'The neglect of factory owners in the matter of safety of their employees is absolutely criminal,' said H.F.J. Porter, New York's leading safety engineer.  'One man whom I advised to install a fire drill replied to me: "Let 'em burn.  They're a lot of cattle, anyway."' Workers could easily be replaced."
 
Having once read Upton Sinclair's novel THE JUNGLE -- published six years before the Triangle Fire -- I was not very surprised by much of what I read in FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP about the outrageous conditions faced by workers who lived and died in New York's garment industry.
 
But the recounting of the actual Triangle Fire is but a tiny corner of Albert Marrin's tour de force about the origins of the late-nineteenth century new wave of immigration; the related immigrant experience; the history of Manhattan's fashion industry; the evolution of American manufacturing; the height of New York City's Tammany-era and, most importantly, how government evolved in response to the demand to protect workers and consumers from all-powerful business interests who treated humans like so many cattle.
 
Albert Marrin does all this in 192 pages that include nearly one hundred photographs of life in early-twentieth century New York and extensive back matter.
 
In the process we meet many characters with whom I have some familiarity -- such as Frances Perkins, Al Smith, Jacob Riis, Fiorello La Guardia, and  Robert Wagner -- along with others who made significant contributions, such as Clara Lenlich, Mary Dreier, Alva Belmont, and Little Rose Schneiderman.  And I learned all about cutters and shtarkers and pogroms, and shleppers, and the Hester Street Pigmarket.
 
And for me, the grandson of Sicilian immigrants who, more than a century ago, rode that new wave of immigration to New York; for me, the child who grew up where "The City" meant Manhattan, and where school field trips would lead to museums and plays amidst that magical land of tall buildings and chaotic swarms of humanity; this book is the long-awaited story I've never before heard about my own spiritual homeland, about why millions like my grandparents poured into it, and what it was like for them to arrive there:
 
"Immigrants had reason to call Ellis Island the Island of Fears.  After checking their luggage, they entered an immense hall divided by rows of iron railings.  Officers had them form dozens of lines and file past the waiting doctors.  The process seemed like an assembly line, only it handled human beings, not manufactured goods.  The first doctor listened to each person's heart with a stethoscope.  Down the line, others checked for signs of tuberculosis, smallpox, and similar 'loathsome diseases.'  Next, a doctor examined eyes for trachoma, a contagious disease.  He did this with a buttonhook, a metal tool used to button gloves.  Using the hook, he pulled each eyelid back to look for signs of the disease."
 
Marrin concludes his stellar tale with a look at how history is now repeating itself in developing countries where almost all of the clothing Americans buy and wear today is manufactured.
 
I'll think about this book the next time I push on the (required-by-law) panic bar when I exit a public building.
 
Richie Partington, MLIS
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FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books.  You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received.  Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

 

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