Imagine yourself a working-class woman in 1917 in New Jersey.
Your family is depending on you to contribute to the household income. You’ve held other jobs, but the work was unglamorous and the pay low. Then you land a coveted position at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation, painting the dials of watch faces with a radium-laced mixture.
You quickly learn the best technique for painting: just dip your brush, paint a dial, then “point” the brush by putting it in your mouth. You can’t believe your luck—between a fat paycheck and the way your hair and skin glows so fetchingly, you are the envy of everyone in town.
Until, that is, it all goes wrong. You’re exhausted all the time. You develop a toothache, a limp, a fever that won’t go away. The doctors are no help, and with medical bills mounting, you find yourself unable to work. You try to commiserate with friends, but most are coworkers whose situations feel eerily similar to yours. Gradually it sets in—the creeping realization that the company you so trusted had a hand in your fate.
Such was the reality for dozens of young women employed as dial painters in the early 20th century. In her new book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, author Kate Moore traces the stories of several of these women, striving to put faces to their long-forgotten stories.
At the time, radium was all the rage. Dubbed “liquid sunshine,” radium’s propensity for eradicating cancerous tumors quickly led to its billing as a cure-all for various ailments. Companies cashed in on the craze by producing radium toothpaste, face cream and cosmetics; though very few contained actual radium, the association with the wonder element was too powerful a draw to ignore.
Money also drove the behavior of the dial companies. When dial painters began to fall ill, many first turned to the company for reassurance and compensation. There they found a cold reception, as the companies staunchly denied any responsibility and blamed the women for employing the lip-pointing technique, which companies claimed to have banned. (In fact, there was virtually no way to paint quickly and accurately without the technique.)
Sadly, many of the women succumbed to their illnesses without seeing compensation. But a brave few determined that they would take on the companies and see justice done. And though their fight took years, and most of the crusaders were gravely ill throughout, their legacy lived on through new protections and additional research into the long-term effects of radioactivity.
Moore does an admirable job of breaking a complex narrative into a highly readable story. The cast of characters can be overwhelming—I found myself referring back to the key character list frequently—but that adds to the sense of incredulity that their stories could have been so easily dismissed by employers, government officials and the justice system.
History buffs and those interested in social justice will find much of interest in this detailed yet gripping account. Ultimately, The Radium Girls is a tale of incredible courage in the face of often insurmountable odds, one that readers will find timely and relevant even today.
Mary Kinser is Collection Development Librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in her hand.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 14, 2017)