I just read the best book ever and I can’t stop talking about it! As I’ve admitted before, I looove to read historical romance (two things I love history + romance, it’s a win-win!). On occasion, I enjoy reading something a little more cerebral. Before Christmas, Megan and I were shopping at Barnes & Noble (correction: we ate lunch there, then perused the books) and we saw the book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. We looked it over and decided we should read it. But it was Christmastime, and you shouldn’t buy things for yourself…..so I purchased it the day after Christmas.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore is the true story of young women who worked in radium watch dial factories during World War I. Radium was a new, miracle substance which turned up in medicines, cure-alls, and was thought to cure cancer. The girls painted watch dials with luminous paint (containing radium) so soldiers overseas could see their watches in the dark. It was a much-coveted job by most girls at the time because it paid well and was considered glamorous. Not only did the girls work side by side, talking and laughing, they also got to work with “liquid sunshine.” Sometimes for kicks they would put the luminous paint on their teeth or face, then go into a dark room and giggle at each other. The dust from the luminous paint settled everywhere on the girls, on their hair, their clothes, on the food they ate at their desks. Some girls wore their best dresses to work so that the dust would cover them and then when they went dancing with a beau, they positively glowed.
As it was hard to paint tiny numbers on watch faces with a brush, the girls were instructed to wet the brush in their mouths before dipping it into the luminous paint. That way, the tip of the brush was nice and pointy. It became a mantra: lip, dip, paint. Some girls lipped the brush after every number, some girls after every two or three. The luminous paint didn’t have a taste, but it was a bit gritty. A few girls quit because they didn’t like the taste, but most girls loved their jobs. The girls were told by management that the radium in the luminous paint was not dangerous, it was actually good for them. It would strengthen their bones and help all of their ills.
The American Radium Company was in New Jersey, then one in Ottawa, Illinois. When girls started falling ill, no one knew what it was from. After all, no one even dreamed it was from radium, the miracle substance. Most girls first had problems with their teeth. They had tooth after tooth pulled, but their mouths didn’t heal. Mollie Maggia, the first of three sisters to get radium poisoning, had her jaw break after her dentist gently touched it. She died a horrible death after the radium ate through her jugular vein. She was only 23 years old. Other girls first had hip pain and developed a limp. They limped everyday to work and home, wondering what on earth was wrong with them. A dial worker named Edna found out what was wrong with her when she reached for her pill bottle on her nightstand and caught her reflection in a mirror. She literally glowed in the dark. She screamed, then fainted. Yes, the radium settled into the marrow of their bones.
The Radium Companies denied any responsibility, still claiming that radium was totally safe. They paid doctors and dentists very well to say the same thing to patients of radium poisoning. Over the course the book, there were a few good doctors and lawyers that were brave enough to take on the fight. Two groups of workers are highlighted in the book, first from New Jersey, the second from Illinois. Each group had seemingly insurmountable legal battles, like David taking on Goliath. Because of these legal battles, important changes were made to workplace safety regulations and labor laws.
These brave young women leapt off the pages of the book. I felt privileged to read their stories and learn of their sacrifice. Even 80 years after their deaths, their graves are still radioactive. Since radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, the girls’ remains will be glowing for a very long time.
Have you read any good books lately? Let us know in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out previous posts, Books You Need to Read, and “The Right Stuff” to Read, and for some more great suggestions.