Luminescent watches are functional and fun now, but 100 years ago, they were responsible for the slow deaths of watchmakers in NJ, CT, and IL. The Radium Girls had it all—high wages, work friendships, and a sense of place in their communities—until luminescent poisoning ravaged their ranks.
Once upon a time, no one could read their watches in the dark. Then, in the early 1900s, watchmakers started adding luminescent paint—lume, for short—to hands and hour markers.
As World War I scaled upward, military personnel required the new paint technology in order to read the time during nighttime patrols and maneuvers. Propaganda turned these men into heroes, and America followed their lead, demanding luminescent watches for camping, hunting, diving, and general timekeeping in the dark.
But the paint took a deadly toll. Women in factories in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois used fine brushes to swipe radium paint over dials and were instructed to use their lips to moisten the tips of the brushes into perfect points.
These fated painters would embellish their nails with lume, too—an unauthorized use, but an understandable one, given the novelty of the paint and the dreariness of war.
Ladies of The Night
The women had good lives, though. They were paid three times as much as other factory workers. The work culture was strong, too.
They were known for walking home looking like ghosts, covered in the luminescent dust that powdered work stations, walls, and floors.
They were well-liked in their respective communities for the levity they brought to their neighborhoods.
The playfulness was part of the daily routine for the women, too.
They reported loving their sense of purpose and the friendships they developed while joining the work force.
About five years after their factory work—most had moved onto other cities or to start families—things went bad. They began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures, necrosis of the jaw, and, finally, death.
The women who were still alive sued and were met with a response that is all too predictable in today’s climate. Defense attorneys for the radium corporation said the watch painters were dying of syphilis, as a result of wanton personal decisions, not radium poisoning at all.
Justice for Watch Painters, Justice for All
They had another hurdle. The statute of limitations gave them two years to sue for occupational illnesses, but five had passed by the time symptoms became debilitating.
Their insistence on justice is a seminal milestone in the history of American labor rights. Thanks to the Radium Girls, particularly the brave ladies of Orange, New Jersey, who fought tooth and nail from hospital beds, the statute of limitations no longer applies. Companies are required to know and inform workers of the potential results of working with hazardous materials.
And watches, of course, no longer contain radium. The fatal chemical was replaced, and today’s luminescent watches use a safe, self-luminous form of aluminum.