Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Liquid Sunshine: Radium’s Rise and Fall

Radiate as Directed

I am no scientist. In tenth grade, I got a zero on a chem quiz because I didn’t understand the significance of significant digits. Turns out, if all your answers have the decimal point in the wrong place, all of your answers are wrong! Still, I keep some sciencey facts in my back pocket. A mole is both some sort of unit of measurement and an animal. That dinosaur that spit venom out of those head wings in Jurassic Park never existed (I’m sorry). You can use something that looks like a little soduku board to figure out if your kid is going to have attached earlobes or not. And radium is really radioactive.
While even I know that last fact, this was far from common knowledge for the first half of the 20th century. In fact, America and Europe were ravin’ for radium. Pierre and Marie Curie, one of my favorite historical couples (watch out for them in an upcoming, sappy post!) refined the element from uranium in 1910. The radioactive metal is luminescent, giving off a blue light.

With WWI emerging, that turned out to be a big deal. The war had created a demand for new ‘glow in the dark’ products, created by using radium-mixed paint. Submarines used radium-faced dials on their navigational tools so they could avoid detection by surface ships. Soliders placed “radium tacks,’ basically glow-in-the-dark thumbtacks, at the openings they cut out of barbed wire barricades on the battlefield. This allowed their brothers in arms to safely find the holes they had hacked. Guns used radium-lit sights to allow for better nighttime aim, and wristwatches with glowing numbers became extremely popular accessories for men stuck in the trenches.

The trend took off on the home front, too. Radium seemed to represent the science of the future, and everyone wanted in. Women had filled many of the jobs men left vacant when they marched off to war, and as a result, they ended up making a lot of these hip new products. Those glowing watches became popular with civilians, with many of them made by young female ‘dial painters’ in New Jersey factories. The well-paid and pretty cushy jobs were hotly sought after.

People wanted glow-in-the-dark keyholes, door knobs, house numbers, and telephone mouthpieces. They used radium baits to attract fish to the glow. Movie theaters lit their aisles so late-arriving patrons could find their seats and more effectively prevent you from enjoying the Marmaduke trailer. “You know how bedroom slippers have a habit of straying under the bed and away from groping fingers? There are now provided buttons or buckles of glowing radium which shine out at night and make it east to find the slippers!” applauds a 1922 girl’s magazine (thanks, science!). Ironically, glow-in-the dark radium labels even marked bottles of poisonous materials in the cabinet.
In Germany, they produced yummy radium chocolate bars.

Kids had fun with half-lives and probably halved their own in their process. I would personally prefer the chance to play with mercury again, like the time I broke a thermometer as a kid, but to each his own.

Women all over the western world looked to get that special glow only radioactivity can give you. J’adore this creepy ad for Tho-Radia, a popular face cream sold in France during the 30’s.

Radium wasn’t just cool, it was hailed as a medical cure-all. Hundreds of thousands of Americans medicated themselves with radioactive potions, salves, and gadgets. Some of these products contained real radium, while others (luckily for their duped purchasers) gave off no real radioactivity. Radium was thought to cure cancer, TB, rheumatism, baldness, and pretty much everything else. “Radium, the most precious substance in the world today, is being applied with success in a great variety of diseases. Recently it has been discovered that radioactivity has a very destructive effect on dandruff germs and cures have been effected in a remarkably short time!” touted advertisements for radium shampoo.

You could buy Radium Nose Cups and Radium Respirators to inhale some radium-enriched air. "Radium: scientists found it, governments approved it, physicians recommended it, users endorse it, we guarantee it, SURELY IT IS GOOD," read the advertisements.

You could scrub your pearly whites with German radium-infused toothpaste.

And men, you might want to invest in a Radiendoctrinator. "Wear the adaptor like any athletic strap. This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed."

Radithor, a hugely popular potion made with a significant dose of radium, sold more than 40,000 bottles between 1925 and 1930. It was said that it “immediately the whole body is flooded with billions and billions of Alpha rays that liberate their energy throughout the entire system like floods of sunshine.” It hit the big time partially due to the public praise of a Pittsburgh millionaire playboy industrialist named Eben B. Myers. He touted the product as a cure-all, sent it by the case to friends, and drank 4.4 ounces a day.

The Curies encouraged people to go to radium spas, which opened their doors in Europe and the US. “Ematorias” or “Inhalatorias” invited people to come inhale some refreshing radium and drink and soak in naturally radium-rich waters, proudly marketing themselves as “radioactive to a marked degree.” They claimed that the radium would stimuate cell activity and leave you in top form. For whatever reason, a couple of these places seem to still exist. Guess I know where the Matterns are going on family vacation…everyone in the minivan, stat! Shotgun!

For those who couldn’t afford a trip to the spa, radium emanators were a must. Basically water jugs with a radioactive base, they were the “it” household accessory of the 1920’s and 30’s. "The millions of tiny rays that are continuously given off by this ore penetrate the water and form this great HEALTH ELEMENT: RADIO-ACTIVITY. All the next day the family is provided with two gallons of real, healthful radioactive water . . . nature's way to health,” promised the product’s brochure.

The radium fever didn’t stop until radium’s negative health effects became terrifyingly clear. The lady dial painters had put the tip of their paintbrushes into their mouths to create a sharper tip while painting luminescent numerals. By the 1920’s, a lot of those ladies were coming down with a slew of health problems. They found they had weakened bones, with long arms or leg bones sometimes just snapping spontaneously. Since radium kills bone tissue and opens up the risk of infection, many of the women developed jaw problems. Radium’s chemical properties allow it to plate itself onto human bones when ingested, which meant it stayed in the women’s system. Plus, inhaled radium sometimes got caught in the nasal and eye cavities in the women’s skulls, giving them cancer in the tissue around them. Even though doctors determined radium poisoning to be the cause of their problems pretty quickly, the popular industry was hard to kill. The women fought for damages and industrial reforms in a long, landmark court battle.

Radiathor-chugging Eben B. Myers kept at his product promotion campaign for years, even as he lost all but two of his teeth and dropped to less than a hundred pounds. His bones started to fracture and the poor guy actually developed holes in his skull. His high-profile death was quickly linked to his radium regime, and the
press coverage advanced the growing skepticism of radium’s healthfulness. The product’s inventor died young of bladder cancer, almost certainly because of his own Radiathor intake.

With nuclear weapons entering the public consciousness during WWII, people started to get the idea that radiation might not be the sunshiney goodness they once imagined. Radium products started to disappear from the market, with the last stubborn few leaving shelves in the 60’s. SURELY IT IS GOOD.

Works Referenced:

Clark, Claudia. Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reforms, 1910-1935. University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Davie, Thomas. “10 Radioactive Products that People Actually Used.” Environmental Graffiti. http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/offbeat-news/10-radioactive-products-that-people-actually-used/1388

Del la Pena, Carolyn Thomas. The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built Modern America. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Edelstein, Michael R and William J. Makofske. Radon’s Deadly Daughters: Science, Environmental Policy, and the Politics of Risk. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Everygirl’s Magazine: Magazine of the Camp Fire Girls. Sept 1922. Rowe Wright, ed. New York: Camp Fire Girls, 1922. http://books.google.com/books?id=A_XmAAAAMAAJ&pg=PP14&dq=radium,+watch&as_brr=4&ei=-ynzS5TRG6OgzASbmNzlDA&cd=5#v=onepage&q=radium%2C%20watch&f=false

Frame, Paul W. “Radioactive Curative Devices and Spas.” http://www.orau.org/ptp/articlesstories/quackstory.htm

“New Radium Invention Makes Your Faucet a Health Spring.” The Pittsburgh Press. 8 March 1931.
“Radium is Restoring Health to Thousands.” Pittsburgh Press. 15 June 1930. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=gjQbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=P0sEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6555,4623827&dq=radium+health&hl=en

Ron, Antonia Martniez. “Radicoactive Makes You Feel So Healthy.” Fogonazos. 25 June 2008. http://www.fogonazos.es/2008/06/radio-activity-makes-you-feel-so.html

“Well-Known Tailor Cured of Dandruff By the Use of Radio-Active Preparation.” The Pittsburgh Press. 6 April 1918.


  1. Good job with this post, thank you!
    Scary though... Poor people...

  2. If you want to play with mercury look up gallium and galium alloys

  3. The radium cigarettes are NOT (and never were) radioactive.
    The word "radium" is only used as a brand name.
    The same goes for radium condoms:

  4. Thanks for the correction, Big Bopper- duly noted and removed!