While the men wore lead aprons to protect themselves from the radiation, the women were given nothing. The Radium Girls were even told to lick their brushes to get a fine point for detail work.
In 1917, scores of patriotic young girls counted themselves lucky to have landed war work at a large warehouse complex in Orange, New Jersey.
The pay was fantastic – roughly three times the average working girls’ wage – and the work was light. Literally, the work was light as the main job the young ladies were given was to apply glowing paint to the faces of clocks, instrument gauges, and wristwatches for the United States Radium Company.
Once a thin layer of white paint, impregnated with the newly discovered element radium, was layered onto the dials, their hands naturally glowed and made them easier to read at night or in a dark trench in Flanders.
Without exception, the “radium girls” were told the paint was safe to handle, and so virtually no precautions were taken while they handled and even ingested countless doses of radioactive poison.
Using A New Technology
The radium-infused paint was a new invention in 1917. Though Pierre and Marie Curie had first identified the element in 1898, it wasn’t until 1910 that Marie successfully isolated a sample of it to work with.
Right away, the couple knew their discovery was dangerous. Marie gave herself several unpleasant burns improperly handling radium. Pierre once said he couldn’t bear the thought of sharing a room with even a kilogram of the stuff because he was afraid it would blind him and burn off his skin.
The Curies were working with large quantities of pure radium. The conventional wisdom at the time, however, was that a little bit of the stuff was good for human health. Throughout the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of people drank radium-infused tonic water, brushed their teeth with radium toothpaste, and wore radium cosmetics that gave their skin a bright, cheery glow.
Mixed with the right kind of paint, radium would luminesce after exposure to light, so that a watch face painted with the stuff could soak up energy during the day and stay visible all night long. It was one of the scientific miracles of a very optimistic age.