Thursday, March 1, 2018

Radium Girls

Written by Kate Moore, this fascinating work of nonfiction tells the story of the girls and young women who worked as watch dial painters in the early part of the 20th century.  The paint they used was luminous, and what made it glow in the dark was... radium. 

The work was considered skilled labor and paid top dollar.  Painters felt they were lucky to have the jobs, especially after the stock market crash.  They went out dancing together after work, bought stylish clothing, tried to get jobs at their factories for family members and friends, and were generally admired and envied. 

The girls were taught to stick the paint brushes in their mouths to make a fine "point" for number painting.  They were told that the radium was "good" for them, a common misconception of the element in those days. The fine powder hanging in the air and the paint splashed on their clothes got all over their bodies, making them look especially alluring in the dark clubs.

But then of course, as the years went by, the women began to get dreadfully ill.  Radium poisoning was unknown until more and more dial painters visited the same doctors and dentists, and a few clever medical people began to see the pattern.  The company managers, of course, denied that any illnesses were related to dial painting.

Eventually those companies were sued by some of the women, and there was a huge battle for workers' rights and compensation for industrial poisoning.  Over the years, radium girls even helped researchers learn more about radium and its long-term effects on the human body.

This is a fascinating story with elements that are still relevant to today's world.  You'd be amazed and maybe a bit horrified by how much.

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