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The Story of the Radium Girls. A dark story from the beginning of luminous dials.

Workers at US Radium Corporation working with radioactive material / Credit: Wikipedia

The radium girls were a group of young women who worked in factories during World War I to apply luminous coating to watch dials.

The original name for the luminous coating applied to watch dials during WWI was 'Undark'. This luminous coating was manufactured by US Radium Corporation (URC), which was established during WWI to develop products to help soldiers view their timepieces easier at night.

US Radium Corporation often touted the fact that they used small portions of radioactive materials in their products. As the demand for radium coating increased, it moved from being coated on watches to other products such as firearms, toys, and street signs.

Not surprisingly, this led to an increase in workers for the factory. From what initially started as an operation of 70 women, this quickly led to more than 4,000 workers being employed in their New Jersey factory.

Dial painting at the time was a good job for working-class women, paying three times the average factory job and boosting them to the top 5% of female workers in the United States.

The workers would brush around 250 dials per day, and as they painted, their brushes would lose form. This led to the workers licking the brushes in order to keep the shape need to paint the intricate timepieces. Since these brushes were being used to provide a radium

coating, these frequent radiation exposures started to add up and became quite dangerous.

US Radium's Chief Scientist died of anemia as a result of radiation poisoning in 1925. This was then followed by the death of Sarah Maillefer, a long-time worker at US radium, along with her sister who also worked with the company. By 1927, over 50 women had died from radiation poisoning.

Daily Times newspaper article from July 7th, 1937 / Credit: Daily times

The way radium reacts within the body is thousands of times worse than when applied externally, so these small amounts of exposure would emit constant, destructive radiation within each person's body. This would often lead to many severe health defects and death.

US Radium denied the claims initially, and this started a multi-year-long court battle between legislators, radium corporations, and the women.

Surprisingly, the negative effects of radium were also known at the time. With the first radiation poisoning deaths happening before the inception of US Radium Corporation, the managers at the factories would wear lead aprons and use ivory-tipped tongs to handle the material. This was quite a difference between the workers who were putting this material in their mouths all day.

However, small amounts of radium at the time were believed to be beneficial to health, and it was socially acceptable to have it in household ingredients such as toothpaste. Unfortunately, those studies deeming it beneficial were also conducted by the radium companies themselves.

Catherine Donohue giving final hearings on her death bed / Credit: Chicago Daily Times

These women's health defects were finally proven to be linked to the usage of radium. By 1938, Catherine Donohue won a pivotal court battle while on her deathbed.

The Radium Girls' case was the impetus to making employers responsible for the health and safety of their workers. This led to governmental regulations and the establishment of the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to protect workers. The establishment of the OSHA within the United States has saved countless lives, which reinforces the fact that the Radium Girls' deaths actually helped contribute to saving thousands of lives well into the future. For this, they will be remembered eternally as saviours.

Visit the Montres Publiques website to read more about vintage watches, watchmaking history, and the watch industry as a whole.

By: Montres Publiques

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