Today's Reading



In the dial-painting studio, the impact of America entering the First World War was immediate. Demand for the company's luminous paint rocketed. It was applied not only to watches but also to gunsights, ships' compasses, and aeronautical instruments, and it had many more military uses. The studio in Newark, New Jersey, where Katherine worked was far too small to produce the numbers required. So her bosses opened a purpose-built plant just down the road in Orange, New Jersey. This time, there wouldn't only be dial-painters on-site. The company was expanding, now doing its own radium extraction, which required laboratories and processing plants.

Katherine was among the first workers through the door of the two-story brick building that housed the new studio. She and the other dial-painters were delighted by what they found. The second-floor studio was charming, with huge windows on all sides and skylights in the roof. The spring sunshine streamed in, giving excellent light for dial-painting.

An appeal for new workers to help the war effort was made. Just four days after war was declared, Grace Fryer answered the call. She had more reason than most to want to help, because two of her brothers were heading to France to fight. Lots of dial-painters were motivated by the idea of helping the troops. "The girls," wrote Katherine, "were but a few of the many who through their jobs were doing their bit."

Grace was a woman who really cared about her community. Her father was a representative of the carpenters' union, and Grace had picked up his political principles. Aged eighteen, she was an exceptionally bright and pretty girl with curly chestnut hair and hazel eyes. Many called her striking, but her looks weren't of much interest to Grace. Instead, she preferred to focus on her career. She soon excelled at dial-painting, regularly completing 250 dials a day.

Grace, Katherine, and the other women sat side by side at long wooden tables running the full width of the room. Wartime demand was so high that as many as 375 girls were soon recruited. Hazel Vincent was one. She had an oval face with a button nose and fair hair. Other new joiners included the music-loving Edna Bolz, who was nicknamed the "Dresden Doll" because of her beautiful golden locks, and Ella Eckert, who had a great sense of fun. Dial-painting was such a desirable profession that the radium girls promoted the vacancies to their loved ones. Katherine's orphaned cousin Irene Rudolph was hired. It wasn't long before whole sets of siblings were seated alongside each other too, merrily painting away. These included the Maggia sisters—Mollie, Quinta, and Albina—and the Carlough girls, Sarah and Marguerite.

That summer, the plant was full of activity. "The place was a madhouse!" one worker exclaimed. The girls did overtime, working seven days a week, with the studio operating night and day. There was a lot of work to do. In 1918, an estimated 95 percent of all the radium produced in America was used to make radium paint and applied to military dials. By the end of the year, one in six American soldiers would own a luminous watch.

Though the pace was demanding, the setup was still rather fun for the women. They reveled in the drama of long shifts painting dials for their country. Now and then, they even found time for a game. One favorite was to scratch their name and address into a watch, a message for the soldier who would wear it. Sometimes, he would respond with a note.

Despite the occasional games, the girls were under pressure. If a worker failed to keep up the breakneck pace, she was criticized. If she fell short repeatedly, she was fired. The company's biggest concern was any wasting of the expensive radium. The girls were covered in it—their "hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial-painters were luminous," wrote one observer. So when a shift was over, the women were ordered to brush the radium from their clothes. The sparkling particles were swept from the floor into a dustpan for use the next day.

But no amount of brushing could get all the dust off. Edna Bolz remembered that even after the brushing down, "When I would go home at night, my clothing would shine in the dark." Grace recalled that even her boogers became luminously green! The girls glowed like ghosts as they walked home through the streets of Orange.

The company was haunted by the waste. Soon, it banned the water dishes in which the women cleaned their radium-encrusted brushes. The bosses said that too much valuable material was lost in the water. Now the girls had no choice but to lip-point, as there was no other way to clean off the radium that hardened on the brush. As Edna Bolz observed, "Without so doing, it would have been impossible to have done much work."

So Edna and Grace, Katherine and Irene, and the Maggia and Carlough sisters did just as they were told. Lip... Dip... Paint.

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