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Radium: the glowing hands of time

In my working day I come across all manner of weird and wonderful objects; our collection is comprised of thousands of them! But for me, it is the most mundane objects that catch my eye and they don’t come much more ordinary than the British newspaper. We tend not to give newspapers a second glance - in fact many of them were destined to wrap fish and chips the day after they were published. However, newspapers and advertisements can tell us a lot about the time in which they were written, they hide hidden histories and we are lucky enough to hold thousands of these nuggets of history within our collection.

One particularly interesting publication is The Police Review & Parade Gossip, a newspaper for the country’s constabulary. Whilst the articles reveal news, gossip and even spelling lessons for the constables of the UK (remember this was long before a coherent schooling system) these papers are also jam-packed with delightful, intriguing and often odd advertisements. From bizarre medicinal cures to furniture, these advertisements tell us what police constables of the early twentieth century were buying and one of these unusual items was in fact radioactive watches…

A glowing discovery

In 1898 Marie Curie discovered radium, a highly radioactive and dangerous element. After its discovery, radium became a household staple and without knowing the dangers, industries began piling their products full of the stuff. Soon radium was showing up in toothpaste, toys, chocolate, cosmetics and of course, clocks and wristwatches.

Having a glow in the dark effect without the need for a lit match or the press of a button meant that various industries and services were soon rushing to use radium for practical purposes and by the early 1900s the radium day and night watch was being sold to bobbies up and down the country in publications just like our ‘Police Review’. For police constables on night duty watches that would illuminate in the dark were of great value, and soon they became bestsellers amongst the police force and several other occupations that worked in low-light or by night.

Death-defying timekeeping

The eerie glow of the radium watch was useful, it offered an answer to an age-old issue and was a brilliant example of modern innovation however, this came at a massive cost.

Having discovered the wonders of radium, dial makers developed a radium-based paint and in 1914 the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation began producing the phosphorescent paint for watch hands and markers. With the start of the First World War radium painting became just another of the catalysed industries and the art of painting watch faces and other like items became a vital and noble role; women saw themselves as doing their bit for the fight and so began the death-defying process thousands of workers had to endure in order to create the celebrated glowing watch face.

Large swathes of these workers were women and the job of dial painting was sold to them as ‘the elite job for the poor working girls’. The job paid more than three times the average factory job and gave the women financial freedom in a time of flourishing female empowerment. Many of these women were teenagers, ideal for the role because of their small hands which were perfect for the artistic work. These teenagers would also go on and spread the message of their new job’s appeal through their friend and family networks. This often led to whole sets of siblings working alongside each other in the studio. But before long, these women became known as the ‘ghost girls’ because they would literally glow after a shift. Yet this did not put the girls off, many would even turn up to a shift in their best dress to ‘capture’ that glow to show off later at the dance halls. Some girls would even paint their teeth in radium for an illuminating glow.

Despite glowing, the girls continued happily, being assured by their employers that they were totally safe. Yet every day these women were physically consuming lethal amounts of the radioactive element. In order to complete the painstaking detail that was required when painting the clock faces, women were encouraged to ‘lip dip’, which was a process of putting the paint brush in the mouth repeatedly to create a fine point for more accurate painting.

But people weren’t totally unaware. Radium-induced deaths had been recorded and the men in the industry were even supplied with lead aprons and ivory-dipped tongs. Yet still, society continued to pursue radium and these girls continued to be unwittingly facing death on a regular basis. These women became known to history as the radium girls.

The tragedy of the radium girls

By 1922 the first of the radium girls died and gradually, more and more of these women began passing away horrifically. The radium had caused cancers and diseases which saw flesh fall away and holes open up. Yet despite the suffering, the large corporations denied responsibility and a series of cover ups began. It was only when the first male employee of a radium firm died that experts finally took up the charge. Despite callous attempts at cover ups, including an incident which involved a company digging up one of the girls glowing bones, justice was finally served but it wasn’t for another 16 years and had required every bit of strength those ‘ghost girls’ could muster.

Brave women like Grace Fryer and Catherine Wolfe (who gave evidence from her deathbed) changed the course of history and saved countless others from the same painful fate. The radium girls’ case was one of the first in which an employer was made responsible for the health of the company’s employees. It led to life-saving regulations and a crucial scientific legacy.

Today, many people don’t know of the radium girls yet they are arguably some of the bravest and most honourable women of the 20th century, if not history as a whole. So today, as I flick through that 1914 police newspaper I will remember the radium girls, because behind the smiling policeman in a relatively innocuous advertisement hides a disturbing yet hidden history. Through a simple advert in an unrelated publication, we can learn so much more about a wider history and through the ordinary, we can find the extraordinary.

For further information on the radium girls:

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

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Paul Watson
Paul Watson
Oct 02, 2020

One of the great things about working at the museum is that you're always challenged. As a Second World War re-enactor I've handled radium dialled equipment before - often having it sent away to have the radium paint removed and safer luminous paints substituted. Like asbestos, radium was the wonder material of the day and no one knew let alone considered the long term health effects - as can be seen in the article it was used in a variety of ways (radium enriched chocolate, anyone ?); I knew little of it's range outside of dials and certainly knew nothing of the plight of the Radium Girls (Simon and Shuster ISBN 978-1471153884). Something I'll be researching further.

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