Death Watch

Who were the Radium Girls?


By Michelle Tong

This year’s theatre Fall Feature at Garfield is Radium Girls, the story of girls who paid for corporate deceit with their lives. But what exactly is the legacy of the Radium Girls? 

The tale of the Radium Girls flaunts two things industrialized America values most: taking advantage of labor union workers, and covering corporate asses.

Touted as a miracle substance by the media, radium played a major part in Edwardian trends, most notably luminous watches. From the late 1910s to the early 1920s, a group of young women were tasked with painting watch dials in three major factories belonging to the United States Radium Corporation. Using the “lip, dip, paint” mantra, workers were encouraged to use their lips and tongue to sharpen the brush point when it dulled. 

The women, unaware of the true nature of the radium paint, unknowingly ingested large quantities of toxins and used the paint on their own bodies. While corporate bigwigs sat in their lofted offices, the women below had become akin to porcelain dolls: delicate and easily broken. The symptoms of the poison presented themselves in the form of bone corruption; with patients going in to complain of a toothache. 

After the discovery of these symptoms, workers began getting tested. In an attempt to discredit the girls’ symptoms, many were diagnosed with syphilis. The company, after having been informed by scientists of the poison, ignored the findings and continued to allow workers to ingest radium. Following the revelation of the poisonous toxins, a group of workers sued the USRC in 1928 and settled out of court for $10,000 each and $600 a year as long as they had radiation poisoning. 

Following the demise of the USRC, a new company emerged from its ruins: the Radium Dial Company. Its workers, unaware of the cases against the USRC, also destroyed their bodies by ingesting radium with the then-classic slogan of “lip, dip, paint.” 

Ensuing La Porte v. USRC in 1935, individual workers gained the right to sue employers for labor abuse and damages. Several investigations were launched, and after an overwhelming slew of results that screamed “TOXIC”, radium was no longer advertised as a miracle cure and factories involving radium shut down. 

Garfield Theatre’s Radium Girls, inspired by the real Radium Girls, follows victim Grace Fryer in a crusade for justice against idealistic ex-employer Arthur Roeder, who is blind to the so-called miracle-cure’s onslaught of death in radium dial factories.

“Students are doing the work to research, understand, and fully communicate who these people were and their impact on our world today,” stated director Natalie Gress, when asked how the cast planned to do justice to the story. “We plan to have a virtual and in-person display of the people and share how their work, activism, mistakes, and sacrifices made an impact on safety in the workplace today. [Radium Girls] showcases the importance of challenging unchecked power, questioning whose interests are being prioritized, and demonstrates how essential it is to analyze the information that we are given.”