With the pending release of the new movie Radium Girls - set to release this year, but there is no specific date yet, we thought we would take a look at who the Radium girls were because they were in fact related to the watch industry. The movie focuses on the American Radium girls, and the trailer still looks intriguing. In addition to the new movie, a documentary was released in 2018 which focused on women who fell victim to radium poisoning in Illinois in the 1920s.
During World War I, many women went to work in factories while the men went off to war. In 1917, these patriotic young women considered themselves lucky to find work. The pay was fantastic, and the work was easy. The women were instructed to apply glowing paint to the faces of clocks, instrument gauges and wristwatches for the United States Radium Company (USRC). This paint was radium-infused, a new invention in 1917.
The girls were told the paint was safe to handle, so no precautions were taken while they handled and even ingested countless doses of radioactive poison. It was a practice for the girls to lick the tips of the brush to create a finer point.
The men who worked for USRC wore lead aprons to protect themselves from the radiation , but the girls were given no protection. Their skin and clothes would glow when they got home from work. The company said the males were handling huge bundles of raw material while the girls were never exposed to more than a small amount. The supervisor reassured the girls that they were perfectly safe.
Some girls even took to wearing their best ball gowns to work on Friday, so they would glow at the dance that weekend. Girls painted their nails with radium, sprinkled flakes into their hair, and even applied it to their teeth to “give their kiss a pop. By 1920, 300 girls were working on USRC’s floor - at the peak of operations.
Mollie Maggia, in January of 1922, got a toothache. Her molar was removed when she went to the dentist. A few weeks later, she had another tooth pulled. Neither wound healed. Instead, they grew and seeped blood and pus into Mollie’s mouth, so more teeth had to come out. By May, she went into surgery where an abscess needed to be removed, but when the dentist opened her gums, the bone was too ashy and gray. when he prodded it, the whole bone crumbled under his fingers like ashes in a fireplace. Instead of removing a tumor, he dug out Mollie’s entire left jaw with his fingers. Following this, bits of her ear had to be removed as well. By September of 1922, Mollie was dead. The tumors had cut into her jugular vein and flooded her throat with blood, choking her to death. Her death was attributed to syphillis.
Around the time Mollie got sick, other girls were getting sick as well. One suffered a complete collapse of her vertebrae. Others developed skin cancer, cataracts, throat cancer, and other symptoms of long-term radiation exposure, such as loose teeth and hair loss. After independent studies were conducted and determined radium was bad for you and USRC went into ruin, it was too late for many women who painted radium onto watch dials. Join us as we take a closer look at Rolex dials to find out the material Rolex uses today - it is definitely not radium.