The sinister story of the Radium Girls, the women who worked in clock factories during WWI

The tail of the radium girls is truly one of the saddest and darkest in history. Let's take a look at what and how such an incident happened.

Women working in a clock factory
© Daily Herald Archive
Women working in a clock factory

During World War I when men were off to fight in the battle, many women were employed to work in the factories. They replaced the men and continued working in their place to maintain the production. One such industry that hired women to work was the clock factories. Not only did they pay really well, but the amount of labour was also minimal. So why did it turn out to be a nightmare in the end?

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The Radium Glow

It all began in 1912 when radium was heavily trending. Due to the lack of factory workers, many American women were employed to work in clock factories. Their only task was to paint dials and numbers on the face of clocks. The paint provided had a certain percentage of radium in it. When asked about the health and safety of the paint, the girls were assured by the company that not only is this harmless, but it would make them prettier as well. The women were asked to lick the tip of the paintbrush in order to provide precise results. Innocently, they did what was asked of them, and unknowingly ingested the radium on a daily basis

The sinister story of America’s Radium Girls Fox Photos

The use of radium in the paint was to make them glow at night. Radium is a highly poisonous substance that causes irreversible damage to the body if exposed for a long time. The radium has a glow effect to it so naturally, their skin, clothes and even teeth started to glow. But it would all soon turn into an unbelievable nightmare.

The creeping sickness

It was all going well until it wasn't. After working for the factory for a while, the women started to experience strange symptoms. It would usually start with a toothache, then progress to body pains and got progressively worse. Many suffered ulcers, haemorrhages and many other painful symptoms. The women accused the companies of poisoning them with radium. The companies then blamed the women, claiming that their deaths are not because of paint but because they had Syphilis.

The sinister story of America’s Radium Girls Bettmann

Many girls died while working in the clock factory unaware that they were poisoning themselves. The ill women tried to sue the clock factories but they were easily taken down by the fake claims of the richer company, as they had a larger research budget to back up their claims.

Finally in 1938 five women - labelled the Radium Girls - sued the Radiant Dial Company they worked for after Radium exposure left them close to death. After a long trial and painful testimony, they won their case. After a long legal battle laws about safety and health protection were introduced to the system.

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