In the early twentieth century, a new element was introduced as a cure all and a wonder paint: Radium. Turned into pills, tonic waters, and miraculous medicine Radium had the ability to glow in the dark, inspiring various firms to open up as radium dial painting factories. Teenage girls and young women, with nimble and thin fingers, were selected and trained to paint these dials with the precious radium paint–paint that shone in the dark wherever it touched. In some factories, the paint was preciously hoarded and in others it was freely given. Regardless of how much paint was used and the warnings the girls were given, each dial painter became used to being a glowing beacon in the dark, covered in dust and paint every day without knowing what might happen when that dust and paint made its way through her body…
What is The Radium Girls about?
The Radium Girls is a look at the lives of the young women and girls who worked for two radium dial painting factories in Orange, New Jersey and Ottawa, Illinois. These women suffered serious health consequences as a result of exposure to the element radium, and their struggles ultimately led to some reform in the United States for industry poisoning standards. This book gives names, and specific stories of women unable to hold their children, unable to bear children at all, and women whose lives were tragically cut short in their twenties and thirties due to the extreme consequences of radium poisoning.
Genre: Historical Nonfiction
Though written somewhat from the perspective of the various women hurt by the use of radium in dial painting, this book is entirely factual. The events, the quotes, and the citations are well researched and the presentation of the women’s lives comes from a place of well informed sympathy.
Plot: Radium Dial did some women dirty
This book goes from bad to worse very quickly, demonstrating that the lives of the dial painters were considered expendable in the face of producing the product of painted luminous dials. Over and over the companies resisted admitting any fault, giving any settlement payments, or fulfilling their duties of taking care of these women they so grievously harmed.
This book is heartbreaking, and also incredibly well written. Moore’s writing style is finely crafted and also suits the tone of the book incredibly well. From describing the beautiful days of radium girls coming home covered in luminous dust to the heart wrenching descriptions of the declining health and eventual deaths of the sick women, Moore manages to cover it all. The research done, the quotes included, the postscript and the discussion of the morally bankrupt way the executives of the radium companies handle everything were so compelling and I can absolutely understand the hype this book has received since its release.
I don’t have any concrete criticisms of this book, but this is where I will put some content warnings for it. CW: gore (including semi-graphic descriptions of bodily harm caused by radium), discussion of mental health, discussion of death and descriptions of dead bodies. This book deals directly with the physical effects of radium poisoning and does not shy away from portraying these effects in a way to demonstrate the serious harm the radium companies caused by not understanding the element they worked with.
Wow. This book blew me away from the very start with such wonderfully crafted writing, and just kept blowing me away with its content. The horrible treatment received by the women who worked for these dial painting companies, the way they had to battle in court in order to be recognized… I also appreciated the way these cases sent shockwaves through industry to help create safer standards. The postscript was a great addition to demonstrate that without the dial painters and their cases, we would still have horrible cases of industrial poisoning (and of course we do today, the cases are just better hidden). This is a very intense read, but if you are prepared to hear about the hardships these dial painters faced then it’s absolutely worth it.