During World War One and the 1920s radium was, well, all the rage. It was a new “miracle” substance that had been discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Until she died, mostly likely from the effects of handling the substance, Marie worked to find ways that radium would help people. While we now know the full extent of how harmful it is, when radium was first discovered it was thought that drinking it in water or ingesting it in food stuffs had great medical benefits. The substance was also lauded for its luminous quality, which could be mixed into paint. One could finally have a clock or watch that could be read in the dark! This was extremely helpful for troops in times of war.
In order for the clocks to be readable the tiny digits needed to be painted by hand. This was a highly sought-after job. The pay was good. Radium was thought to have many health benefits, so it would have been exciting to work with. Painting radium clocks was an ideal job opportunity for young women, particularly because it was listed as a job for artists and not just as a factory job. During the war they got to feel like they were helping their country. After the war ended they got to earn a living wage in what they thought was a safe environment.
These young women were paid per digit, so if you were fast there was an opportunity to make a lot of money. There were other incentives as well. The American Radium Company would reward fast workers. Their pictures were taken and they were lauded for their hard work.
The process of painting the digits is horrifying to think of now. The workers were taught that the best way to paint these tiny digits was “lip pointing;” in which they would put the tip of the paint brush in between their lips to sharpen it after painting each digit. Let me repeat that. They would put a substance that we now know as extremely harmful when ingested between their lips and swallow it after each digit. The workers were assured that this was not only the best way to paint the small digits on the wristwatches but totally safe for them to do.
Wristwatches gained popularity in the 1920s since they could be carried easily on your person and read at any time. It could be argued that by then the dangers of radium were becoming clear. However there were still many medical professionals who promoted the effects of ingesting it. The problem with ingesting radium is that it is a slow killer. It also does things like stimulate red blood cells, which could seem like a good thing for the body. Radium also acts like calcium to the body, attaching to bones and eating away at them. There was no way to see those effects on the body for years, and by then it was too late.
So the young women, some girls, really, trusted their managers and the company they worked for. Not only did they trust them: some of them took full advantage of working with the luminous substance. They would wear their dancing dresses to work so that the dust of the radium that was in the air would get on the clothes. They would paint themselves and go out dancing. It was the roaring twenties, after all, and these women were taking full advantage of the new freedoms they had. As they glowed in dance halls they were given the moniker “the ghost girls.” That name wouldn’t age well in a few years.
Eventually these women started to feel symptoms such as toothaches and fatigue. The radium was eating away at their jaws and other bones. Some doctors were even able to remove the jawbone simply by lifting it out of their mouths. Huge tumors started to grow around jaw areas or anywhere else the radium could attach to. In the early wave of workers going to their doctors and dying from the effects of radium poisoning they were told they must have had syphilis. This was also the official ruling of death on many death certificates.
These male doctors embodied the prejudices that many Americans had toward flappers. They were out dancing and drinking in provocative dresses. If they were having premarital sex there was little sympathy for these women. Also: why would this miracle substance be the thing harming these girls? It had to be something else. There may have been early cases which were mistakenly diagnosed, but American Radium would take advantage of these biases later by using sex to shame the women, keeping them quiet and shifting the blame away from the companies.
In 1925 one of the original workers, Grace Fryer, was beginning to get sick. She decided not to die quietly. She began to look for lawyers to help take her case to court. Finally, in 1927, the case entered court — and the newspapers, as well. It caused a huge stir and a very nasty legal case. Companies slandered the women in the papers, but it was difficult to argue with the still-glowing bones of dead workers that were finally being given attention. In 1928 the case settled in favor of the workers, which was huge for workers’ rights in America. Prior to this it was very rare for workers’ rights cases to even make it to court, let alone for the court to rule against big business.
The ruling encouraged more workers to come forward. Eventually, the women were compensated for the damage done to their bodies. Death certificates were eventually changed so that the women would not be shamed in death. This was a huge win for workers in a time before OSHA. It was also one more step toward women’s rights in the workplace.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive number for the death toll of these women. Some who came later and didn’t work with radium as long wouldn’t show symptoms but would have to fight cancer instead. Their names may not be in our history books, but that does not diminish the horror that these women endured. Nor does it diminish the importance of their fight for workplace safety. I was ashamed to realize that I had never heard of these courageous women, not even while I was getting my undergraduate degree in History, until listening to a podcast two years ago.
This is just a short article on this topic. For more information I do have some links for you!
Radium girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women is a book by Kate More. These are two articles that I think are very well done, one by CNN and the other from NPR. Proceed with caution to the articles as they do have more graphic pictures. There is also a movie that was released in 2018 called Radium Girls. Here is the episode of the podcast that I first heard this from. Warning, they curse quite a bit if that upsets you.
I hope that this will help to tell the story of these brave women and how hard they fought.
ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!!!