Around a century ago, long before the technologies of modern times, people were absolutely obsessed with the novelty of glow in the dark watches. And while the beautiful and glowing paint that made them possible may have once seemed like magic, it was anything but, in the most macabre way.
Around 70 women were hired to work at a facility in New Jersey during the year 1916, where they painted watches and military dials with the new element known as radium. Marie Curie had discovered it merely 20 years before, and provided young women with ‘the elite job for poor working girls.’
And with their checks more than doubling the average factory job, those who landed a position as a dial painter felt quite lucky to have gotten a position that empowered them to be independent, and on the same level as many men during that time, a concept even more novel than the glow in the dark watches themselves.
With their job providing them with a very delicate and tedious task, involving perfect strokes on tiny watches, the girls were instructed to use their lips to keep the brushed pointed and tout. So, with each watch dial, they ingested quite a bit of the radium element.
Little did they know, the element, which was currently being used as a cancer treatment, was actually quite dangerous. “Because it was successful, it somehow became an all-powerful health tonic, taken in the same way as we take vitamins today — people were fascinated with its power,” said Kate Moore, author of “The Radium Girls,” in a phone interview.
And not only was it used in watches, but people also placed it in toothpaste, cosmetics, and even in food in drinks. People called it a ‘cure for the living dead,’ ‘perpetual sunshine,’ and believed it to cure anything from arthritis to gout.
It became a major craze and was even glamorized, as the women working with it blew their noses into their handkerchiefs, leaving a glowing residue. One woman even painted her teeth with it, in order to impress the man in her life. Sadly, over time, the women began to grow sick. From chronic exhaustion to birth defects, the women experienced a number of anguishes, that left them without teeth, and with gums that never healed.
With the first suit against the dial companies taking place in 1925, it seemed as though bringing justice to these ladies, and their slowly occurring deaths would be impossible. The reason being? Because it was hard to trace their symptoms all to one source. To add insult to injury, radium poisoning was not actually a compensable disease yet, so the little money the girls finally made, was barely enough to pay their doctors.
Thankfully, one brave lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who worked pro-bono, along with dial painter Catherine Donohue, finally brought justice to the girls and future women in the industry. After eight appeals, the women were finally vindicated, but it was almost too late.
The remaining survivors were compensated and pushed for the death certificates of the women who had previously passed to state the correct cause of death. In the end, radium was banned and has not been used in watches since 1968.