The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore; published 2017 by Sourcebooks
I have to give Sourcebooks props for their superb marketing on this book; I felt like I was seeing this book everywhere I turned, so I finally decided to buy it on Audible. I’m glad I did, because it’s a story I intend to tell to my children and everyone else who will listen.
After Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was quickly hailed as a miracle element. People were drawn to it like bugs to bright lights on a hot summer’s night. Radium’s entrancing luminosity meant it was painted onto military instruments like aircraft dials and watch dials so that they could be seen in the dark.
During World War I, radium companies began to mass produce these military instruments and hired thousands of young women to do the work. They were taught the “lip, dip, paint” routine: The girls used their lips to shape the bristles of the paintbrush into a fine point, dipped the brush into the radium, and then painted the numbers on the dials. Rarely did they rinse their brushes between applications—that would waste radium, and ruin the fine tip they’d perfected.
Working in these watchmakers’ factories became a highly sought-after occupation for young women. They could help the war effort—and they were paid good money. They could buy the nicest shoes and dresses, often a big appeal for girls from working class families. And working with radium was fun! As the book reports, the girls would paint it on their teeth to make them shine. The radium coated their dresses and skin so that they themselves shined in the dark, which was good fun for date night. To amuse themselves, the girls would paint glow-in-the-dark mustaches on themselves and make faces in the dark room. They had a grand time.
And all the while, their supervisors encouraged them to do so. Why not? Radium was beautiful; how could it possibly be dangerous?Continue Reading