By Kate Moore (Guest Contributor)
This website is entitled “Wonders and Marvels.” At the turn of the century, perhaps the greatest wonder on the planet was Marie Curie’s newly discovered element: radium.
It glowed in the dark. It emitted vast radioactivity; then seen almost as a superpower. It was declared ‘the greatest find in history’ and quickly exploited by commercial entrepreneurs. Radium toothpaste and cosmetics lined the shelves of America’s drugstores, sitting alongside medicinal radium treatments for ailments such as hay fever and impotence. It was sung about on Broadway and glamorised in novels and comics; one could buy radium jockstraps and lingerie … and cleaning sprays.
Into this fevered environment sprang a new profession: dial-painting. Young working-class women were recruited to paint watch-faces and military dials with luminous radium paint; the latter now in great demand thanks to the First World War. The girls were taught to lip-point: to place their paintbrushes between their lips to suck the bristles to a tapered point for the fine handiwork.
It was a lucrative job – the women in the top 5 percent of female wage-earners – and very sociable. Part of the appeal was also the radium itself. The women couldn’t help but get covered in the luminous element and they would deliberately apply it to their bodies before their dates so that they would shine in the dancehalls, where the Charleston was taking the world by storm. They had checked with their bosses that radium was safe; they were told there was no need to be afraid.
Yet by its definition, a wonder may be so because of its mystery. Though the girls were told it was safe, their bosses were ignoring evidence to the contrary: the skin burns suffered by staff who handled large quantities; the deaths that occurred before the first dial-painter even picked up her brush.
Before long, the girls themselves became the wonders. Medical marvels: destroyed from the inside out by some unknown substance. Those profiting from selling the wonder of the world hushed up evidence that linked the dial-painters’ devastating injuries to that glowing substance. The wonder, from this distance in time, is that they could act so callously. For even as the first girls died from radium poisoning, others took up the job. A factory line of fatality was underway, with a distressing rate of productivity.
The story of the radium girls, however, is not simply a tragic tale of corporate greed or a warning regarding the unwise commercialisation of wondrous elements about which we know little. For the women were marvels in other ways, too: working-class girls who stood up against the might of powerful corporations; people prepared to fight to the death to protect others and leave a lasting legacy.
The women shine through history for these achievements. Yet there is also a final twist in the tale; one last wonder to marvel at. After they sucked those bristles and swallowed the paint, the radium settled in the women’s bones. While lying on their sickbeds, the radium still shone from them, now beaming from their bones with its unearthly light.
You may know that radium has a half-life of 1,600 years. Even as I write, the radium girls will be glowing in their graves.
Kate Moore is the author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks; May 2017).