At least, that’s how those in charge framed things in the plants that were running in Orange, NJ and Ottawa, IL. In her book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore paints us a picture – a very human one – of what went on for these women.
At the start, it seems like a happy story. Women were finding work, good-paying work, and were working with one of the newest wonders of the modern age – radium. From reading the book, and other history of the era, it seemed that radium was really being put forth as a cure-all for all manner of things. For the women in the dial painting studios, they would be invariably covered with the powdered radium compound just as a matter of course in their work. This led to both their clothes – and them – having an otherworldly glow as they went about town at night.
With the 20/20 glasses of hindsight, we now know that they were working with a dangerous compound, and shudder to think that they were pointing their brushes with their lips, literally ingesting the radium compound. At the time, however, those women did not know – they were told things were perfectly safe. In fact, at one point, a full-page newspaper ad was taken out touting how safe things were (in today’s parlance, that’s a heavy dose of fake news). Scientists, knew, of course, how dangerous it was, and as the book unfolds, it becomes very clear the leadership of the radium companies knew.
And as the women began to fall sick with health problems their dentists and doctors could not identify, the companies stayed quiet. Even as lawsuits began to come (and finding a lawyer was a fight of it’s own for these women), the corporations were able to say they had the law on their side. Radium poisoning wasn’t on the list for “occupational hazards” and there was a 2 year limit on claiming the affects – though radium took longer to show itself, and persisted.
Not only was it a fight against the companies, it was a fight to change the law. While there were some work safety protections in place, it was not like it is today. In fact, you have the Radium Girls to thank for the existence of OSHA today. Due to my interest in watches, and Ottawa being downstate from me, I found this book to be a fascinating read. At times, it can be hard to keep track of the women and their families, but the author does a decent job of establishing the relationships as the story jumps between Orange and Ottawa.
If you have even a passing interest in this era of America’s industrialization, or watches, I’d recommend The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. This is not some dusty, historical volume. It’s written as a well-paced novel, though all of the events are (unfortunately) true. As Moore points out, there hadn’t been an expiration of the human side of what these women went through, both in their suffering and in the fight to get the companies to make things right. Now, just as the radium itself will, we have this book to stand against time as a testament to their fight.