My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Published 2nd May 2017
Lip… dip… paint.
We start the story in 1917, beginning with the story of Katherine Schaub, not quite fifteen years of age starting a new job at the watch dial factory of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in New Jersey. The first day of her apprenticeship she was to observe the other dial-painters and learn how to paint the many watch faces they did every day with the paint they mixed from a fine powder with the fine camel hair brushes that they put in their mouth (called lip-pointing) that would make the brushes sharp and perfect for painting the fine dial numbers on the watches that were all the craze in America. At its peak hundreds of women were employed in this occupation.
Lip… dip… paint.
The magic ingredient was radium, the most expensive element that sold for $120,000 (2.2 million in today’s money) for a single gram that made everything glow around it. Radium was seen as a miracle. It was touted as a cure from cancerous growths to mundane things such as hay-fever, gout and constipation. Radium was laced into bandages and pills and even put in water for people to drink as a health tonic. Dubbed liquid sunshine, it was marketed to people in every manner possible. There were radium lingerie, and food and toothpaste (to make your smile whiter,) cosmetics and it was even used as bug spray.
Sabin von Sochocky was the thirty-four year old doctor who originally invented the luminous paint used to paint the dials in 1913 after studying under the world’s greatest authorities on the subject of radium, the Curies themselves. It was Pierre Currie who said that impact with radium externally would easily kill a man in 1903. Von Sochocky was aware of the dangers of radium, having suffered burns and cutting off the tip of his finger when it came into contact with radium because he knew that it would eat away at healthy, as well as cancerous tissue on the body. But to the dial-painters, it was said to bring a rosy blush to their cheeks, that they would be healthy and that there was nothing to fear from their contact with radium.
From the benign beginning of the book we are taken into a story that beggars belief. The lives of hundreds of women would eventually be tragically affected by their close contact with the element called radium. What often began as terrible pain in the jaw and teeth coming loose, rotting or falling out altogether, the women would suffer terribly from the effects of radium poisoning. But it took years for their claims to be heard, much less taken heed to, and many women died not knowing what was causing their suffering.
Moore also takes up step by step over what the company (United States Radium Corporation) took to block and deny the claims the women made, from covering up medical proof by hiding test results to even stealing the affected jaw bone of a woman from her autopsy so that it couldn’t be investigated by other medically trained people. There is no depth to which the men of these companies wouldn’t sink to to avoid taking responsibility for poisoning the women.
Lip… dip… paint.
Woman by woman Moore takes us through the early stages of their illness and often gives harrowing details of the suffering the women endured. Pieces of jaw bone coming up through the soft skin under the tongue, legs shrivelling and becoming lame, foul smelling pus filling their mouths, bones breaking as if they were insubstantial, sarcoma’s growing all over their bodies and the never ceasing pain. The women were accused of all manner of coarseness, such as claiming they had sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis or that they had died of something as simple as diphtheria. The women’s reputations were dragged through the dirt and they were made to feel guilty for taking their former employer to task when it was seen as the backbone of the town it worked in, creating jobs in the middle of the Great Depression.
By February 18th, 1933, Katherine Schaub was dead at the age of thirty from the effects of radiation poisoning. Katherine and a number of the women she worked with became the first recorded American industrial poisoning incidents on modern safety records. The radioactive material eventually built up in the bodies of the women and nearly all died of radioactive poisoning.
Lip… dip… paint.
Kate Moore writes a horrific piece of modern industrial history with the ease of reading a well written novel. It is honest in its depictions of what happened, but never slides into the way of suffocating pity. She paints the women as courageous and determined and not in the least self-serving. It looks also at the feminist issue of women’s lives mattering less than men’s even in our recent history. This is a book to read to learn from, to never allow again and to pay tribute to the brave women who died needlessly for the sake of corporate wealth.
Compelling, wretched, courageous, exacting and concise, this is a book worthy of your time.