Today's Reading

Radium was a wonder element. Everyone knew that. Katherine had read all about it in magazines and newspapers, which were always full of advertisements for new radium products. At the turn of the century, scientists had discovered that radium could destroy human tissue. After that, it had quickly been used to treat cancerous tumors, with remarkable results. It saved lives. People therefore assumed it must be healthful. So all of Katherine's life, radium had been marketed as a magnificent cure-all. It wasn't just used to treat cancer but also hay fever and constipation&really, anything you could think of. People popped radioactive pills to treat their ailments, yet they also used radium products to ward off ill health and to give them energy. Radium water was drunk daily as a health tonic. The recommended dose was five to seven glasses a day.

The element was dubbed "liquid sunshine," and it was an entrepreneur's dream. Also on sale were radium butter, milk, and chocolate, radium toothpaste (guaranteeing a brighter smile with every brushing), and even a range of Radior cosmetics, which offered radium-laced face creams, soap, and makeup. But because radium was the most valuable substance on earth—selling for $120,000 for a single gram, which is $2.2 million in today's values—these products weren't aimed at poor working-class girls like Katherine. It was mainly the rich and famous who were lucky enough to get up close with radium.

Well, the rich and famous—and the dial-painters. They perhaps got closest to radium of all.

To her delight, Katherine could see that there was luminous radium dust scattered all over the studio. Even as she watched, little puffs of it seemed to hover in the air before settling on the shoulders or hair of a dial-painter at work. To her astonishment, it made the girls themselves gleam. Each girl mixed her own paint. She dabbed a little radium powder into a small white dish, then added water and some glue to make the greenish-white luminous paint. The company called this paint "Undark." The fine yellow powder contained only a tiny amount of radium. It was mixed with zinc sulfide, which reacted with the radium to give a brilliant glow. But tiny amount or not, the stunning, shining radium was even more beautiful than Katherine had imagined.

Her very first task that morning was to learn the technique that all new dial-painters were taught. Katherine carefully picked up the finely bristled, camel-hair paintbrush she was given. She saw that the smallest pocket watch the girls had to paint measured only three and a half centimeters across. The tiniest element to be painted on the watch was just a single millimeter in width. Yet the girls would be fired if they painted outside the lines. So even though their paintbrushes were thin, the girls had to make the brushes even finer.

There was only one way they knew of to do that. They put the brushes in their mouths.

It was a technique called lip-pointing. Katherine had to suck on the brush to make it taper to a point. Following the company's instructions, Katherine put the brush to her lips, dipped it in the radium, and painted the dials. It was a "lip, dip, paint routine." All the girls did it that way—they lipped and dipped and painted all day long.

The dial-painters did not adopt the technique without checking it was safe. "The first thing we asked [our bosses was] 'Does this stuff hurt you?'" remembered one of Katherine's colleagues. "And they said, 'No.' [They] said that it wasn't dangerous, that we didn't need to be afraid." After all, radium was the wonder element. The girls, if anything, should find that swallowing it did them good. They soon grew so used to the brushes in their mouths that they stopped even thinking about it.

But for Katherine, it felt peculiar, that first day, as she lip-pointed over and over. Yet she was constantly reminded why she wanted to be part of the glamorous workforce. The dust-covered dial-painters shone like otherworldly angels all around her. And they dressed like queens, in expensive silks and furs. The women were paid a flat rate for every watch they painted, which meant the most skilled workers could take home, in today's money, almost $40,000 a year. This ranked them in the top 5 percent of female wage earners nationally and gave them plenty of spare cash for shopping. So Katherine persevered. She and the well-dressed dial-painters soon became friends, sitting together to eat lunch, sharing sandwiches and gossip over the dusty tables. They had fun at company picnics too.

Yet in that spring of 1917, there was not much fun happening in the wider world. For the past two and a half years, a terrible war had been raging in Europe. Most Americans had been happy to stay out of the conflict. But in 1917, that neutral position became impossible. So on April 6, just a few short months after Katherine started work, Congress voted America into what would become known as "the war to end all wars."
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