Dial painting, the elite job for the poor working girls during WWI
The Radium Girls were young women who worked in clock factories, painting watch dials with self-luminous radium paint. These young women who glowed in the dark after their shifts, faced frightful and deathly side effects. This horrendous event led a fight for justice against US labor laws of that time.
Dial painting was known as the elite job as it paid three times more than the average factory job. Also, with war declared, hundreds of working-class women rushed into these clock companies.
Giving the women financial freedom in a time of burgeoning female empowerment. Many of them were teenagers, with small hands perfect for the artistic work.
The young women spread the message of their new job’s appeal through their friend and family networks; often, whole sets of siblings worked alongside each other in the studio.
The watch dials painters soon became known as the "ghost girls" because the luminous paint would make the, glow in the dark. Sometimes, they would wear good dresses at their work place so they would shine at night and even adding the deadly painting onto their teeth for a shiny smile.
Ever since the glowing element had been discovered, it had been known to cause harm yet, Marie Curie a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity suffered radiations burns from handling it.
More again, people had died of radium poisoning way before the dial painters. But warning the young women of the deadly side effects or protection was not considered necessary because at that time, a small amount of radium was believed to be beneficial to health.
In fact, Newspapers went to the extent of reporting that its use would "add years to our lives".
Mollie Maggia, the first victim of this tragedy, had to quit the studio in 1922 due to some unknown sickness.
From an aching tooth, followed by
aching pains in her limps, to a mysterious infection spread in her entire body,
her entire lower jaw, the roof of her mouth, and even some of
the bones of her ears were said to be "one large abscess." But worse
was to come. When her dentist prodded delicately at her jawbone in her mouth,
to his horror and shock, it broke against his fingers. He removed it, "not
by an operation, but merely by putting his fingers in her mouth and lifting it
out." Only days later, her entire lower jaw was removed in the same way.
Mollie was literally falling apart. And she wasn’t the only one; by now, Grace Fryer, too, was having trouble with her jaw and suffering pains in her feet, and so were the other radium girls.
Soon after that, her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that her nurse could not staunch it. She died at the age of 24.
Mollie’s former colleagues soon followed her to the grave.
That ingested radium had subsequently settled in the bodies destructive radiation that "honeycombed" their bones.
It was literally boring holes inside them while they were alive.
Despite the tragic deaths, the United Services Recreation Club (USRC) denied any responsibility for almost two years.
Fighting for their rights, the young women challenge was to prove the link between their mysterious illness and the radium.
Ironically, only when the first male employee of the radium form died, the experts finally took up the charge.
From then on, courage and tenacity took over the radium girls to fights against injustice.
Grace, daughter of a union delegate was determined to hold a clearly guilty firm to account.
With the help and support of Raymond Berry, a smart young lawyer who accepted their case, they found themselves being the center of an internationally famous courtroom drama. They had raised the profile of radium poisoning just as Grace had planned.
Fighting between justice and death, Grace and four of her colleagues were given just a couple of months to live.
The New Jersey radium girls’ case was front-page news, and it sent shock waves across America.
Sadly, as Mollie Maggia was killed by jaw problems, other women suffered from sarcomas and massive pelvic tumor.
However, the Illinois firm and Radium Dial, denied responsibility to the extent of lying about the results despite the medical tests proving the Illinois women clear symptoms of radium poisoning.
In 1938, Catherine developed a tumor that bulged on her hip. Like Mollie Maggia before her, she lost her teeth and had to pick pieces of her jawbone out of her mouth; she constantly held a patterned handkerchief to her jaw to absorb the ever-seeping pus. She had also seen her friends dying before her, and that rather steeled her spirit.
Though close to death when her case went to court in 1938, Catherine ignored her doctors’ advice and instead gave evidence from her deathbed. In doing so, and with the help of her lawyer, Leonard Grossman, she finally won justice not only for herself, but for workers everywhere.