The Unbelievable True Story Of America’s Radium Girls

Published November 18, 2017
Updated January 24, 2020

The Work Of The Radium Girls

Radium girls working at their benches

Wikimedia CommonsEmployees of the U.S. Radium Corp. (Radium Girls) paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches using dangerous radioactive paint.

The men who worked for USRC wore lead aprons to protect them from this radiation, which was known to have a cumulative effect. The shop girls were given no protection of any kind and even encouraged to lick their brushes to get a fine point for detail work.

The reason the company gave for this difference was that the male engineers were handling huge bundles of raw material, while the girls were never exposed to more than a small amount at once. Day after day during the war, and for many years after, the radium girls painted military and civilian watches and dials, licking their paintbrushes and handling jars of radium tincture as carelessly as they would handle any paint.

This paint naturally got all over the girls, whose clothes and skin would glow when they got home from work. The girls thought this was great fun; reassured by their supervisors that they were perfectly safe.

Some girls even took to wearing their best ball gowns to work on Friday so they would glow at the dance that weekend. Girls painted their nails with radium, sprinkled flakes into their hair, and even applied it to their teeth to “give their kiss a pop.”

For several years, working at the radium plant was fun and very well-paid, so many of the employees encouraged their sisters, nieces, and sisters-in-law to apply. By 1920, several large families were working on USRC’s floor, totaling around 300 girls at the peak of operations.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.