Ever since I heard this great episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class, I can't stopped thinking about the Radium Girls...
Between 1917 and 1926, the US Radium Corporation in New Jersey, among other companies, hired women to paint the faces of watches and other instruments with Undark, a revolutionary luminescent paint made from radium salt. In a time when work for women was scarce, US Radium paid well and offered a comfortable life for its hundred-plus female factory workers. As an added benefit, radium was a glamorous, mysterious substance with a luminous blue-green glow suggestive of mystical or medicinal properties. Radioactive quackery reigned, with companies hawking the curative effects of radium-laced toothpastes, beauty creams, sodas, candies, and water (which was lauded as "Liquid Sunshine").
The Radium Girls worked with this fascinating material daily, painting the dials and hands of watches to be sent overseas for American boys to use in European trenches (some even etched their names and addresses into the instruments in the hopes a brave soldier would write). Every few strokes their fine camel-hair brushes would grow dull, so, instructed by their overseers, the women would shape and clean the tips with their tongues and lips. They repeated this mechanical action several hundred times a day, like licking a postage stamp, unaware of the extreme toxicity of the radium they were ingesting. Sometimes they would paint their fingernails and teeth glow-in-the-dark to surprise their boyfriends after work.
Only years later, when women started falling ill with anemia, bone decay so severe some doctors called their skeletons "moth-eaten," tooth loss (a topic of personal interest), and what was eventually diagnosed as radium necrosis, did the chemical dangers of the factory come to light. More shocking still— US Radium had known about and covered up the dangers for years, with scientists and higher-ups taking great measures to ensure their own safety. Five women sued the corporation and became overnight media sensations, tragic victims of corporate abuse, dubbed "The Radium Girls." The corporation vehemently denied radium exposure as the cause of the women's mysterious illness, smearing their character with accusations of syphilis, covering up extremely negative environmental factory reports, and purposely delaying the trials as the women grew sicker and approached death. Ultimately the Radium Girls were awarded a fairly meager sum— $10,000 each plus an annuity that few survived to collect— but their small victory was hugely significant in creating a legal precedent for workers to sue their employers over occupational diseases and in triggering the regulation of labor safety standards.
The Radium Girls pretty much have everything I look for in a song: fascinating historical women, corporate malfeasance, tooth loss, tragedy, and a pro-labor message to boot. You can bet my songwriting brain is percolating. In the meantime, I'm uncovering some incredible existing storytelling surrounding the Radium Girls, like Lavinia Greenlaw's poem The Innocence of Radium:
the innocence of radium, a kind of radiance / that could not be held by the body of a woman, / only caught between her teeth.
Here's a strange and beautiful short animated film based on the Radium Girls by Jo Lawrence called "Glow." I also really want to read or see These Shining Lives, a play by Melanie Marnich about the women at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois.
The research is mostly making me paranoid, and perhaps rightly so, about similarly rapid modern integration of technology that we don't fully understand. Those that do understand the risks of technology, as did the higher-ups at US Radium, likely stand to lose a lot of money and power if it's regulated or banned for health hazards. I warily await what might be said about cell phones in about eighty years.