Wandering in York County

Part of the USA Today Network

Advertisement for a "Radium Alarm" from The Evening Sun, April 24, 1941

Radium watches, radioactive soaps, and glowing toothpaste: How “liquid sunshine” killed hundreds of women

What if you could buy a product that promised lasting health? A miracle drug that sanitized, cured, and even glowed in the dark. 

Around the turn of the century, this sensational item was known as radium. Scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, a husband and wife power couple, discovered it in 1898. 

Radium derives when uranium ore, a mineral mined from the Earth’s crust, decays. Jeri Jones, a geologist, says that miners even looked for uranium in York County. They unfortunately did not find any, but others documented finding some near Jim Thorpe during the late 1800s. Skeptical of actual uranium deposits, Jones writes, “As far as uranium, I think all information is false. Uranium has never been found in the PA Piedmont.” 

However, this didn’t stop locals from joining in on the radium frenzy.

The York Dispatch, August 24, 1926

Sold as “liquid sunshine,” multifarious industries invented hundreds of ways to market radium-based products

Cosmetic products such as face creams, rouge, powders, and soaps lined shelves for those wanting glowing skin – literally. Radium-based toothpaste promised brighter smiles. For food, people purchased radium butter and milk. Kids played in sandboxes filled with the residue from radium extraction. Companies sold their industrial waste to schools on the grounds that the sand would be “hygienic” for the children. 

Various articles from York County newspapers reflects the radium hysteria: Austrian glow-in-the-dark hot springs, radioactive manures that stimulated plant growth, and even radium jockstraps and lingerie. 

York Daily Record, April 3, 1931

Of course, many of these products did not actually contain radium – it cost too much. During the early twentieth century, labeling wasn’t as regulated. So manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon to catch the radium wave profits, regardless of the accuracies of their sales pitches. 

Nevertheless, York Countians purchased some of these radium-based products. During the pandemic, I haven’t been able to access the York County History Center archives. However, I can find advertisements that were in local newspapers from newspapers.com. We can’t be 100 percent sure locals purchased these products, but based on the numerous promotions, I think it’s a safe bet. 

The Evening Sun, October 19, 1923

Soldiers use glow-in-the-dark wrist watches to tell time at night

More than just consumer products, the US government saw the potential of the glowing substance for war. During WWI, women painted radium on wrist watches so soldiers could know the time, even at night. 

York Daily Record, April 8, 1932

In The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (2017), Kate Moore tells the story of this radium mania. She describes how the workers in a factory in Ottawa, Illinois, would spend hours placing the expensive paint on the hands of the watches, each time spinning the paint brush between their lips to get that perfect point. 

At the end of their shifts, the women walked home, their mouths shining with a God-like radiance. Unbeknownst to them, the tiny traces of the paint would eventually cause their death. 

At risk of oversimplification, radiation basically shreds your DNA. It inhibits your cell’s ability to reproduce, causing your body to break down by producing cancerous cells. For a more in-depth look at how radiation affects your body, watch THIS video. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the painters died from cancer that metastasized in their jawbones, throats, and cheeks. 

As early as the 1920s, articles from local newspapers reported the dangers of radium. On June 6, 1929, for example, York Countians read of “radium-poisoned watch-factory workers” dying. Citing the uncertain cause of the disease and the infrequency of cases, physicians’ inexperience meant they had difficulty pinpointing the life-threatening toxicity of radium. 

The York Dispatch, December 6, 1927

Balancing risk with reality

During a time in American history when laissez-faire politics dictated a largely hands-off approach to regulation, no one warned the public of just how dangerous radium was. But how could they have known? Luckily today, we have many safety standards to protect us from these hazards such as the ones laid out by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). 

Questioning the accuracy of diagnoses, the author of the 1929 article wrote, “Even the best and most experienced physicians may be mistaken.” Believe me, people with doctorates can be wrong (yesterday, a friend shot me a raised eyebrow when I mistakenly said “teached” instead of “taught”). 

Even so, I also understand that most of the time I can trust scientists and doctors. Sometimes, we skeptically question others, but sometimes we have to realize our own limitations, and listen to those who know more than us. 

Regardless, our pocketbooks influence us. We may want to listen to what the professionals are telling us, but it’s sometimes hard when we have the rent check to pay. The women who painted the watches, for instance earned three times the average female factory worker, ranking in the top five percent of wage-earners. It’s the same reason why people who work in nuclear power plants make more money – higher pay for higher risk.

What made the watch painters’ cases so sinister was the poison’s latent response, sometimes taking years for death to finally come. Eventually however, it did come. Almost every single woman died from cancer connected to their job at the factory. It took five decades for York Countians to finally understand radium’s risks. 

In 1961, for example,  local newspapers reported that Mrs. Delores Smith from Ottawa, Illinois (a watch painter) had died. An article in the York Daily Record bypassed delicacies when the author wrote, “most of the women are now dead.” 

I can’t help but notice similar themes in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People don’t know who or what information to trust. 

Eventually cases like these would drastically impact workmen’s compensation laws. I firmly believe that we live in the greatest era of all time: General access to medicine. I can Google almost anything. I don’t have to worry about being imprisoned for my opinion. We have cases involving radium to thank for this knowledge.

I’m happy that we listened, learned, and made changes to prevent this from ever happening again. I hope we can learn from this pandemic, leading to an even brighter future for the next century. 

The Evening Sun, April 24, 1941

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.