A Moment on the Lips: The Dark History of America’s “Radium Girls” from American Indian Newspapers

23 April 2020

Gender and Sexuality | History

This blog includes temporary free access to ‘Navajo Times Issue 20 Vol. 26’ from Adam Matthew resource American Indian Newspapers, as well as ‘Our special introductory prices…’ from Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900. Click on the images below to view this newspaper and advertisement for free until May 24, 2020.

 

In 1984, a periodical from the Navajo Times (pictured below) announced plans for a major cleanup effort at the site of a former paint factory located just 84 miles west of Chicago. In addition to neutralizing the potential dangers of a long abandoned industrial compound, the principle reason for this initiative was to mitigate the alarming levels of ionizing radiation emanating from the property. Looming larger than the factory itself, this periodical also provides a glimpse into the tragic story of the “Radium Girls,” laborers for the company who fell victim to gross industrial negligence and later became the faces of a movement for change.

Image © Navajo Times. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Beginning in 1920, dozens of girls and young women went to work for the Radium Dial Company, a commercial enterprise based in Ottawa, IL that made its money through the production of glowing wristwatches and clock faces (an advertisement from a British watch company pictured below, found in First World War Portal).

These items were popularized during World War I, as trench warfare necessitated both stealth and time synchronization to successfully complete night operations. This technology was made possible by a luminous paint that contained radium as a key ingredient.

Employees were hired by the Radium Dial Company to carefully apply the radium-laced paint to each numeral and hand, ensuring the watches’ legibility in the dark. In order to create a fine enough point on their paintbrushes for this task, the girls were asked to taper the bristles between their lips after each application—a process called “lip pointing.”[1] While their employers assured them that the practice was safe, the girls had no idea that they were poisoning themselves beyond the point of no return with each passing workday.

Image © Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

First discovered in 1899 by scientist couple Marie and Pierre Curie, radium is an alkaline earth metal whose isotopes are known to be highly radioactive. This radioactivity is the source of the material’s continuous glow, a property that would capture the imaginations of consumers for years to come. Immediately following its discovery, radium’s luminescence was mistakenly associated with vitality. Without a true understanding of radium’s hazardous effects on living beings, it was marketed as a miracle drug and a must-have accessory for those who could afford to buy it. An advertisement for radium supplements circa 1910 (pictured below) from Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 lists the products as a treatment for sexual dysfunction in men and women.

Image © The Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

We now know that radium harms the human body by absorbing into the bones like calcium.[2] Once incorporated, the radium begins to bore microscopic holes which damage the structural integrity of the skeletal system over time. Depending on one’s level of exposure, this can result in catastrophic bone collapses throughout the body, if not painful cancers and growths. According to the Navajo Times, this was the fate of at least fifty workers between the years of 1920 and 1978.

Despite their rapidly declining health as well as the company’s money and power, the “Radium Girls” of Ottawa Illinois successfully sued their employers in the 1930s, resulting in modest financial compensation for their illnesses. This legal battle was nothing if not contentious, as the company’s executives used many unscrupulous tactics to stall the case and to either manipulate or discredit the girls’ medical records whenever possible. At the time, the girls also lacked the support of their community, which was in desperate need of the factory’s well-paying jobs as it weathered the Great Depression.

Shortly after the girls’ victory, the Radium Dial Company closed its doors in 1937. This closure was only temporary, as the owners reopened a year later under the name of Luminous Processes in a factory just four blocks away. At this new location, described in the Navajo Times, Luminous Processes continued to make radium dials and poison its workers until permanently closing in 1978.

Like similar cases in American history, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the "Radium Girls" were subject to a callous system that failed to prioritize the safety of workers over company profits until it was already too late to save them. However, in the wake of their tragedy, labor reform became a priority in the American consciousness. The momentum started by their case eventually led to the ratification of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Act.[3] Whether they know it or not, the legacy of the "Radium Girls" lives on with American workers today.

 

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External Sources:

[1] https://www.npr.org/2014/12/28/373510029/saved-by-a-bad-taste-one-of-the-last-radium-girls-dies-at-107

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2017/03/radium-superfund-legacy/519408/

[3]https://www.nprillinois.org/post/radium-girls-illinois-tragedy#stream/0

About the Author

Natalie McGrath

Natalie McGrath

Since joining the Faculty Outreach team at Adam Matthew in January of 2020, I have participated in many insightful conversations with scholars in North America about their research efforts and experiences with digital humanities in the classroom. As someone with an eclectic mix of academic interests, I have found myself right at home working with our diverse collections and supporting opportunities for interdisciplinary study with our partnering institutions.

Prior to my work with Adam Matthew, I completed an MA in Art History in 2019 after spending several years working in gallery leadership, curatorial, and collections management roles at a variety of arts institutions in New York State. I am based in my beloved hometown of Buffalo, NY.