Cover Image: The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls

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Maybe you've seen photos of the women who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials back in the 1920s and heard about their exposure to radium and its tragic consequences. I'd come across the topic several times over the years, each time astonished at how innocent people were to the effects of radium. Reading The Radium Girls added a new emotion to the astonishment -- outrage.

In this fairly long book, some 450 pages plus detailed end notes, bibliography, and index, Kate Moore pieces together an almost unbelievable story of greed and corruption and complete disregard for the health and even lives of the women (I can't bring myself to call them "girls" since most were in their twenties and thirties, although there were painters as young as fourteen). When radium was discovered, it wasn't yet known to be dangerous, although it didn't take long to find out. Even so, radium became all the rage in the teens and twenties, with radium tonics especially popular. What saved most people from the ill effects was that radium was quite expensive and most of the products and "medicines" didn't actually contain much radium, if any.

World War I (The Great War) brought with it a demand for the new wristwatches and clocks with dials that glowed in the dark. The factories were going full speed ahead and the painters were thrilled to be getting premium pay for pleasant work in clean conditions among congenial co-workers. When they started to manifest symptoms such as weak bones and losing their teeth, it wasn't immediately connected to the radium paint.

When a few dentists and doctors began to connect the dots, the companies that employed the painters refused to accept any responsibility. In the face of increasing evidence, they went on the attack. Even when former workers began to die in agonizing circumstances, they continued to employ new women and continued reaping the profits. 

How the women finally stopped the use of radium in paint and achieved some justice is a dramatic story and I was riveted by it. It's very cinematic, and is already a play in Britain, and I can imagine it will become a movie at some point, maybe a miniseries. I can't wait.

(Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for a digital review copy.)
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I wanted to love The Radium Girls. I had heard of this piece of history briefly and it fascinates me.  It is so horrifying what the girls went through, especially that their own dire health was hidden from them by the companies they worked for.

My main issue with this book was the lack of focus. There were so many girls that I found it impossible to keep track of who was who and who suffered what. I eventually gave up trying completely. I also found that the book became redundant. Many of the girls suffered similar symptoms, and then the ongoing court cases became tedious as well. I think that the book would have been much more successful, for me at least, had the author narrowed down her focus. For instance, taking the five girls that initially filed suit and having them be the main storyline would have made more sense to me. 

I appreciate how well researched this book is and I do think it has a lot of potential. Thank you for the opportunity to read and review it.
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I was blown away by this book. It was heart wrenching and horrifying but I could simply not stop reading. Having known very little about the Radium Girls (other than their terrible demise) it was amazing to follow along with their stories as though I were living it with them. 

Moore breathed life into a historical crisis that could have been exceedingly dull and depressing. She does not just give us facts about the disease, or the lack of feeling the companies had towards their workers. She gives us context, she gives us emotion, and in the end she gave us new friends to be remembered for their bravery and perseverance. These women, both those mentioned by name and the countless others who were victims of the radium industry, deserve to be acknowledged. The should not be pushed into the shadows, these ghost girls should shine as brightly as the material which made them heroes. 

Factory workers owe them a great debt, and it is through books such as this that we are reminded why history is so important. The fact that Luminous Processes continued their work through the middle of the century is appalling. It would do us good to remember these tragedies to make certain that no more innocents will die due to a company putting profit over people. We should be better than that. We CAN be better than that.
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Riveting. Horrifying. Heartbreaking.  This is the story of the shining women – the dial painters – women who painted the glow in the dark numbers on watches, dials, and more, and were ultimately poisoned by the radium in that paint.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a clock or watch with a luminous dial again without thinking of these women.  The author weaves the threads of the story, complicated at times, into an easily read but haunting account of a little known tragedy that began around WWI and spanned decades.  Parts of the legal battle are not as gripping as the main story, but this is still one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long while.  I absolutely recommend this book to everyone – this story should be known by all.  Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read an ARC of this stunning work.
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The shining girls of America are almost completely forgotten now, but this book brings them back to life in the most vivid portrayal. A group of women who dedicated themselves to serving their country and were in turn betrayed by the very government they sort to help. This is a story of patriotism, courage and above all hope.
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Thank you Netgalley for providing the chance to read this amazing book.   It is a book of extreme importance and I am so glad that Kate Moore took the time to explore this story in such detail and set it out for the reader.  I am filled with admiration for these women who continued their long fight for justice and recognition in appalling circumstances - in terms of their degenerating health - their fight against an oppressive corporate employer who refused to acknowledge and accept responsibility - and their fight against the legal system of the time, plus of course the underlying vacillation of public opinion.   This story has amazing repercussions for employee safety today and I am so glad that the Radium Girls have finally received justified recognition for their undoubted bravery.  I hope this story receives wide publication and I will certainly recommend this title to all my friends and book groups with whom I am associated.  I will also provide a review on my blog.  Thanks once again NetGalley- for selecting this title and allowing access to it.
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This book tells the story of company greed in the highest sense with no regard for its employees. It is remarkable the fight these young women put up and it's impact still on todays working conditions.
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A couple of years ago I saw a play entitled, Their Shining Lives.  It was my introduction to this subject and I was determined to read a book on the subject.  But, I couldn’t find one.  So, when Netgalley offered an advanced copy of this book in return for a review I jumped at the opportunity, and it is exactly the work for which I hungered.  It is set for publication this March.

In 1913, luminous paint was invented by Sabon von Sochocky of The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, NJ. This paint created an industry used for watches with faces that glowed in the dark.  When WWI broke out the paint was used for dial panels placed in military equipment.  Plants across the United States hired thousands of young women, sometimes as young as thirteen years old, who often recruited sisters, to handle the fine details of painting numbers on the watches and dials.  The girls were paid by the watch completed not by the hour.  So, efficiency was of the essence for both the company and earning potential.  They were good at it, sometimes pumping out 4,300 products a day.  Many of the girls were of the top 5% earners of the era.  In order to perform the tasks quickly and with perfection they were taught a technique – lip, dip, paint.  Day after day for years the girls would use their mouths to bring the brush hairs to a fine tip, dip it into the paint, and paint the watch and dial faces.  The paint contained radium, the substance that made it luminous.

Of the thousands of women who were employed in this manner this book follows thirty-four women who worked in two plants:  the United States Radium Corporation in Ottawa, IL and The Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Orange, NJ.  

In the Prologue Moore claims she wants to do justice to the lives of these women.  Although the number of figures she introduces to the reader is large and can take a bit to keep straight, she admirably follows through on her intentions.  When these young women start working for these companies they are gregarious and full of hope for their futures.  Not only did they embrace the economic opportunity presented them, but they fell in love with magical nature of the paint, often using it cosmetically to paint their eyebrows and lips before going out on the town.  In their naivety they believed the company propaganda that the paint was safe and the popular assumption that radium is actually good for you.  As one executive told them, “it will make your cheeks rosy.”  However, one by one, they each began to fall ill.  But, it was difficult to pinpoint the cause initially because the presentation of symptoms and when they began varied.  Some became ill while still working at the company.  Some didn’t become ill until years after.  Fortunately, due to the monotonous nature of the work, the girls formed deep bonds over the years and it didn’t take long for them to collectively connect the dots. They banned together and fought.

But, it wasn’t an easy fight and the number of people that betrayed them is nothing short of disgusting.  They were shunned by their community for going against a company that provided good jobs even during the Great Depression. They were betrayed by the company, attorneys and doctors who at first appeared to be heroes but in the end sold the girls out, and the government.  But a few real heroes did emerge.  Of special note are Katherine Wiley of Consumer League, Walter Lippmann, writer for The World, and Leonard Grossman, who spent thirteen years pursuing the cases through eight courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, absorbing all the cost himself.  He successfully litigated the first case in US history in which an employer was made responsible for the health of its employees.  Their fight was worth it. For the fight has had far-reaching consequences.  Thanks to these girls a test was devised to identify radium in the body of a living patient, they affected legislation, impacted safety regulations at The Manhattan Project, and led to the creation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Moore’s writing is engaging.  She does justice to the strength and tenacity it took for these young women to fight against all odds and takes the reader through every excruciating detail of the decline and death of the women in a way that makes you feel the loss as deeply as the men who loved some of them.  There’s a heart wrenching court scene that had me sobbing right with the husband.  But, she’s not only good with the emotional aspects of the book.  She adeptly describes how radium works in the body in a way that is utterly fascinating and accessible to the lay person. 

I simply cannot recommend this book enough.  I’m sure it will be a favorite of this and may be an all-time favorite.
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The incredible story of promise, ignorance, greed, and tragedy that began early in the twentieth century and would continue for decades. Radium was seen as healthy, so much so, people were encouraged to drink it or bathe in it. Its luminous glow was an asset to aircraft dials and other instruments during WWII. The well- paying jobs of a dial painter was in demand at the plants in Newark, N.J and Ottawa, IL. As the young women licked their fine paint brushes to get a precise point for the liquid radium paint, they didn't know poisonous and radioactive chemicals were entering their bodies and settling in their bones.
In the beginning, their bosses didn't either, nor the dentists and doctors who tried to treat their deteriorating bodies. The painful suffering and eventual deaths were not initially tied to their work. If ever a time for the Internet and rapid communications, this would have been the perfect example. I encourage everyone to read this story of women who not only had to fight for they lives, but also compensation they never received. An important book.
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I received this early reviewer copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

This nonfiction book is almost 500 pages, with about 10% of that as citations, and it reads with the pace of a thriller. Radium Girls is enthralling, horrific, and at the same time, beautiful. The latter came as a surprise to me. I knew I little bit about the 1920s clock dial painters who were taught to lick their brushes to a fine point, and who were told that the radium used to make the dial numbers glow was completely harmless, even beneficial. They'd paint their faces and teeth with radium for fun, even as the powder covered their bodies and clothes, making them glow after they went home at night. When they started to suffer from the cumulative, nightmarish effects of radium, their companies denied any wrongdoing and tried to dismiss the young women as suffering from hysteria or moral failings like syphilis. The agonies that they endured... my gosh. Trying to eat food, and having pieces of their jaws break out through their gums. Their spines collapsing inward, their leg bones compressing, the sarcomas, the daily pain. The beauty in their story--where Moore's work truly shines (pun unintended)--is in their strength of character, their faith, how their intense love of their husbands and children inspired them to fight on, even in agony. The plight of Catherine was especially poignant. How she managed to live for months in her condition, at a mere 60 pounds, defies all medical logic.

I had only really known about the earlier radium girls in New Jersey, not the group from Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1930s. Both groups endured protracted legal battles for medical compensation for the maladies that bankrupted their families. What the Ottawa group endured was worse, in a way, because their ordeal didn't need to happen because of the earlier court cases. Actually, none of this needed to happen. It had been known since the turn of that century that radium caused terrible side effects, but instead radium was glorified as a cure-all, with radiated water and beauty products for sale. These women had to fight to make their voices heard, and many were only listened to after death: after all, the radiation in their bodies has a long half-life. Their corpses still glow, even now.

This is not an easy read. Definitely not for the squeamish. I can read a lot of gore, but sometimes the descriptions--of their medical issues, and their horrible treatment--filled me with nausea and revulsion. I read an early-release ebook version that didn't contain photographs; I imagine the final version will contain images that will make the words even more profound.

Moore's work doesn't come across as motivational porn, or profiteering. She writes from a passion for justice, and to celebrate these women and what they endured. She gives credit to the radium girl for their greater legacy: government organizations that safeguard the workplaces of millions of people, from the Manhattan Project and to modern day. This is a read that will leave you deeply troubled and frustrated, yet hopeful, too.
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This is excellent at bringing the 'girls' to life.  It is less successful in the attempt to give a clear picture of the legal battle. I still recommend it.
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It is crazy that this piece of history is not well known. No one truly understood the element, Radium, and yet it was put into peoples bodies. For such a long time Radium was not classified as a poison, people were careless with the paint which made them glow in the dark. The girls and others surrounded by radium start dying off painfully fast or in other cases painfully slow but all the while, painfully. It's crazy how the companies (eventually) knew that Radium was killing off their staff and said nothing, even going to the extent where they covered it up, paid people off and downright denied it. With a life of 1500 years (?) the impact was and still is terrible.
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I was a little bit confused when I started reading this book, as for some reason I thought it was going to be historical fiction. At first, I thought it was so dry.

But as I kept with it, I would find myself thinking about the Radium Girls even when I wasn't reading. What an absolutely horrible experience, and hardly anyone knows about it. I think this is history that is so important to our nation, and more people should read this book.
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What a remarkable story this is. Meticulously researched and ably told, it explores the lives and death of the girls and women who were killed by the use of radium in their work as dial painters. That strand of the story is horrific in and of itself, but what I found even more horrific was the lying, obfuscation and sheer cruelty of the men who ran and owned the businesses and who refused to accept liability. Their efforts to deny that radium was the cause of the women’s illnesses were simply astonishing. This is a coruscating account of what happens when profit is put before people, (has very much changed?) and if at times the narrative style is a little clichéd and over romanticised, that is a very small quibble about a very good, and important, book.
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What a powerful and sad book.  These women what they went thru by in a way being the test subjects at their work painting the radium dials.  Their injuries from radium poisoning and for some their deaths is so sad.  What was even sadder is that they were not believed in some case or even their reputations destroyed.  This was very powerful book to learn of what they went thru and even how what happened to them can touch us today.  I highly recommend this book.
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4.5 Stars rounded up

I wanted to showcase their shining spirits in a book that would tell their story – not just the story of the famous professionals who had helped them.

I aimed to chart their journey: from the joy of their first lucrative paycheck, through the first aching tooth, to the courage each girl had to find inside herself in order to fight back against the employer who had poisoned her.

I wanted to walk their routes to work and visit their homes and graves. I wished to trace the path between the Maggia sisters’ houses and appreciate how difficult it must have been to manage the steep, sloping hill with a radium-induced limp.

Seventeen young women, some very young, with a lifetime of promise ahead of them. In a time when jobs were scarce and glamorous jobs were few and far between, landing a job with Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark, New Jersey was considered a coup. A factory job, in essence, but they referred to it as a studio, these girls were paid to paint watch dial numerals and hands with a luminous substance that made them visible in the dark. On 1 February 1917, Katherine Schaub was making her way to “the studio” for her first day on the job. Katherine was just fourteen years old.

Radium. Its virtues were extolled everywhere one looked. Magazines, newspapers called it the greatest find of history. New radium products popped up with claims of everything from improved health to being the answer to eternal life. Katherine only saw it as beautiful, a luminous glow.

At first, Katherine was trained by Mae Cubberly. Another young woman, Mae was twenty years old. Using very fine paintbrushes, she instructed Katherine in the technique that all of the dial painters were taught. Lip-pointing: putting the brushes in their mouths to make the tip finer, a technique learned from girls who formerly worked in china-painting factories. Mae even lets her know that she had been worried about ingesting the radium and asked if the radium would hurt them, but had been told it wasn’t dangerous, if anything it would be beneficial. Lip…Dip…Paint.

When working in the “darkroom,” Katherine would call in workers, and could see the signs of the luminous paint on the worker, on the clothes, on the lips, on face and hands, shining.

They looked glorious, like otherworldly angels.

And then America joined the war in Europe.

Demand increased. The company opened a plant in Orange, New Jersey, not too far from the Newark factory. The company expanded right into the middle of a residential neighborhood, and some of the new workers hired lived there. Grace Fryer, eighteen – her two brothers would be heading to France to fight alongside millions. Irene Corby, seventeen. Of course, the new girls were learning to “Lip…Dip…Paint.”

And years pass, it’s the early 1920s, some girls had left the radium company, but it was never long before their spot was filled with some young, new girl thrilled to land this glamorous job. Some of the girls began to complain of being tired, mysterious and unrelenting pains. Some left to find other jobs, some just left, incapable of the demands any longer. Keep in mind that the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was only ratified in 1920. In a world dominated by men, these mysterious illnesses were cast off as frivolous, “women’s complaints.”

This is the story of their fight to be heard, of their fight to find the real cause of these myriad plagues that beset them. Who would be the ones to champion their cause, and who would be those rich and powerful men who would not only deceive them, deny their own wrong-doing, lying through their teeth, making empty promises of recompense which would later be denied or reneged on.

Heartbreaking as it is, these stories are not about delicate little flowers who fall trembling at the feet of the rich and powerful. These are women, who, though physically weakened, found the strength and determination to do what needed to be done - not only themselves or their families, but to protect those still working with radium, and everyone in the future.

This is a well-researched story, and it shows. The sense of injustice is palpable, the story flows evenly, but varies from the fact-delivering, non-fictional voice as the author enters more emotional territory and paints the picture of scenes one could only imagine without her words. A compelling account of another era, the evolution of the rights of the average worker, but especially those working women whose voices they tried, in vain, to suppress and invalidate.

Pub Date: 1 May 2017

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Sourcebooks
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If you're squeamish, skip the areas of this novel that speak of dentist and doctor visits. If you're a history or science or women's history buff, you're going to love this insight.
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Radium Girls is  the story of female factory workers who were exposed to an insane amount of Radium after being told it was safe. It follows their fight for justice while trying to get the factory to claim responsibility. 

This is written more like a textbook rather than a novel but don't let that scare you off, this is a book that deserves to be read. Once you get into the flow of the writing, you can't put this one down.

5 stars for sure! 

*Thanks NetGalley and the publishers for a free copy of this*
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In the first years of the 20th c., radium, a newly discovered substance, was thought to have all kinds of beneficial uses including in medicines and, because of its glow-in-the-dark effect, on such things as clock dials. During WWI, dozens of women, most of them still in their teens, were hired to paint luminous dials on watches with radium paint.  Because the numbers were small, the brushes would often smudge. To compensate, the women would dip their brushes into the paint and then put the brushes between their lips to form a better point.  They were told it was safe. 

Several years later, many of the women began to experience odd and excruciatingly painful health problems often starting with their teeth. As the dentist would extract a tooth, chunks of jaw would come out with it.  Soon, at an age when most of them were just old enough to marry and start a family, many of these women, known as the dial girls, began to die.

 The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore tells their story, the joy they had finding a job that paid so well, the envy of others as they glowed all over as the paint residue covered them from head to toe, the horrendous effects as the radium poisoning coursed through their bones, and their long and often bitter fight to get compensation before they died.  She tells the story with empathy and insight. The reader gets to know many of the girls as individuals, their personalities, their families, their refusal to back down even as the company, many doctors, and the prosecuting attorney did everything they could to prove that radium was safe. She tells about the people who fought for them against the odds. And she tells of their symptoms and their horrible deaths. 

Although this is a book about an important and little-known chapter of American history, Radium Girls is no dry tome.  In telling the story of the dial girls, Moore has created one fascinating, compelling, unputdownable page-turner of a book, one I highly recommend to anyone.

Thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
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