Friday, June 28, 2019

A Shining Legacy

My favorite genre is non-fiction. One of the best books I've read in the last year is The

Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore (Sourcebooks, 2017). Beginning just prior to WWI up until just before WWII, these girls worked as dial painters for clock-and-watch factories in Orange, New Jersey, Ottawa, Illinois and Waterbury, Connecticut.

The painters, Orange, New Jersey factory
The luminescent qualities of radium infused paint made it invaluable in painting clock and watch dials, as well as airplane instrument panels.  Working at "the watch studio" (as these companies styled their workshops) was a glamorous job for a working class girl. The painters were all female, mostly teenagers, some as young as thirteen. Watch painting was not only a "prestige" position, it paid three times more than ordinary factory work. Many of these young women made more than their fathers, helping their large families to stay afloat.
Radium infused lipstick-1930's France

It wasn't the generosity of their employers that paid the dial painters for their work.  The "bosses," the chemists who developed their paint and the factory directors knew that radium paint was a health hazard. This was a secret they kept to themselves because at the same time, radium was being touted as a "health" product. Everything that could possibly be infused with radium, was: toothpaste, "health tonics," make-up, milk.

Or so they were advertised.

Katherine Schaub (l) and Grace Fryer(r) the first plaintiffs 

 The chemists who handled the beakers of paint worked in labs, away from the painters.  The chemists wore protective gloves and lead aprons.

The painters? Not only did they not have protective gear, they were expected to fashion the fine point on their minute brushes by putting them in their mouths...ten to twenty times per dial...then dip them into the paint. There was no water for cleaning the brushes between "paintings." An average worker could turn out two hundred to three hundred dials per day. 2,300 to 3,000 licks of a brush coated with radium paint.

Within a few years, the "girls" (now wives and young mothers) contracted strange and mysterious illnesses, that couldn't be diagnosed. It began with arthritis like aches in their joint, which they attributed to "old age" their late twenties! They lost their teeth, at first pulled because of unbearable pain, then falling out of their own accord, Pieces of jaw bone followed, until the entire jaw crumbled to nothing.  Strange tumors invaded their bones. Spines turned to dust. Death soon followed.

Five of the terminally ill women in the Orange, New Jersey plant, led by Katherine Schaub and Grace Freyer, sued their employer, United States Radium Corporation under the New Jersey Occupational Disease Law. Despite the many doctors, "experts" and government officials the company paid to dismiss their claims that their maladies were caused by radium, the bravery and persistence of "The Orange Five" persuaded the courts and the public. In 1928, the company was forced settle out of court, providing health care and an annuity to the five for life...however long it that was.

The fortitude of "The Orange Five" inspired another five women, this time at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Another five friends, who had been lied to by their employer as to the dangers of their workplace. Eight years later, after the death of their leader, Catherine Wolfe, "The Ottawa Girls" successfully won their fight against Radium Dial in court.

I find myself re-reading this book every couple of months. I re-read my favorite books all the time, but I don't recall reading the same book (at least not as an adult) as much as I have this one. Why?

First, I admire the strength and tenacity of the "radium girls." Many of them worked until they ages 20, young. They believed their bosses. Their families needed the money. And they trusted their own youth to protect them.

Secondly, the author portrayed these girls real people and not a faceless collection of names in a class action suit.  The "girls" left a trove of material for future biographers.  Oral histories by the few survivors or their families. An 80's documentary (no longer commercially available) Radium City about the Ottawa "studio." Court documents. Newspaper accounts of the court cases. Some of the girls kept diaries, (Katherine Schuab aspired to being a published author, which she achieved before her death.) It's this fine use of detail that brings these young women to life again.

The Radium Girls had no sense of "making history" or "crusading" for workplace safety for the ages. All they wanted was enough money to pay their medical costs, and to leave money for their families. They wanted the companies to admit that they had duped their workers, treated them as an expendable commodity. They wanted safety standards put in place. They helped form occupational labor law. It was too late for them, but perhaps it was not too late for their younger sisters and cousins who still worked at the factories. Uneducated, yet determined factory workers achieved all this.

I am inspired by these women, who while seemingly at the mercy of big business and Big Men, felt empowered enough to take them on in court. The Constitution gave them the right to vote only a few year before. Why not use that new found power for the good?

Would that I as a writer, could pick and employ the right detail, shape an individual story arc, that could make my 1920's characters come alive for my readers. And that I as a person, would have the strength to persevere in doing what is right, as these young factory workers did.

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