By TAYLOR MURCHISON-GALLAGHER
The Manross Library hosted the American Clock and Watch Museum for a presentation of “The Radium Dial Painters: Their Fatal Brush with Death,” on Thursday, May 17.
Colleen Nicastro, director of Interpretation at the American Clock and Watch Museum, explained how hundreds of young women met strange and untimely deaths at the beginning of the 20th century. “The Radium Girls” exhibit is part of the new exhibit “Scandals and Scoundrels: Tales from the Dark Side of the Clock and Watch Industries.”
Nicastro explained that the wrist watch, or “trench watch”, became popular during World War I. Since the men were off at war, the women took to the workforce. Around the same time, the U.S. Radium Corporation created what was known as “undark,” a paint made with a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide, giving it a glow-in-the-dark effect.
Women, thought to be better suited for delicate and detail-based work, were hired to paint the faces of the clock. In order to complete such detailed work, they often used their mouths to ensure their paintbrush tips were fine, coining the term “Lip, Dip, Paint”.
“And so the girls mixed water-based glue and yellow powder, a blend of radium and zinc sulfide, the energy or radiation emitted by radium made the zinc crystals flash, giving the illusion of glowing,” said Nicastro. “The faster they painted, the more money they earned. Some women finished only 30 dials per day, while the best painted 300. And most of the women pointed their brush between their lips before moving from one dial to the next, ingesting a little paint each time.”
Ingesting the radioactive paint caused many serious health problems, and many of these young women died young because they were repeatedly told that radium was not the cause of their illnesses.
In 1927, one young woman decided to file a suit against the USRC, but it took a few years before she was able to find a lawyer to take on the case. Grace Fryer eventually found attorney Raymond Barry. Fryer, along with Katherine Schaub, Edna Hussman, Quinta McDonald, and Albina Larice, known as “The Radium Girls” filed suit. A settlement was signed by them on June 4, 1928.
But the use of radium wasn’t outlawed until 1978.
To learn more about “The Radium Girls”, visit the American Clock and Watch Museum, located at 100 Maple St., Bristol.
Comments? Email tmurchison@BristolObserver.com.