The Radium Girls

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The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the story of the young women who worked in factories painting iridescent numbers on watch and clock dials. In New Jersey and Illinois after WWI, girls were hired to use paint made with radium to make the dials glow in the dark. The technique they were required to use was to lick the tip of the brush, dip it in the paint and paint the numbers. Then they were to repeat. No step to clean the brush.

At the time radium was believed to be an ultra-healthy substance. No safety precautions were taken.

These girls were proud to earn good wages and had a good lifestyle. Proud of their work, when they would go out dancing, they would take the radium dust rub it on their eyelids and skin, which made them glow.

As you can imagine, the women started to get ill. One woman had awful jaw pain, and when she went to the dentist her jaw fell out, which was the first of many ailments that inflicted her and her colleagues. One after another, the girls began to experience horrific health issues. The radium would attack their bones. Others, as you’d guess, got rare, devastating cancers.

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Statue of a Radium Girl, Ottawa, Illinois

The girls began to take legal action and the two radium companies fought them tooth and nail. The story soon turns to one of courage and tenacity as these women fight for their lives and fight for justice in the courts against two Goliath companies.

In many ways the story is hard to take, but because these women banded together and had great resilience and remained strong in spirit and clung to hope, The Radium Girls was not a depressing story. My only critique is that the author’s scope covering two factories which weren’t that connected, made the book confusing at times. Yet I understand her desire to tell the full story. I think it would have been better if Moore had focused on fewer girls and added an epilogue about the others. I highly recommend reading The Radium Girls.

(Janice, thanks for recommending this compelling, yet sad book.)

Sepia Saturday

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This week we’re prompted to post on farmers, agriculture or harvest. I descend from city folk, none with a green thumb that I know of so I’ll dig through the Library of Congress and Flickr Commons to find some images of Irish farmers since I’ve got a lot of Irish blood.

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Ireland, 1920, National Library of Ireland, Flickr Commons

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Harvesting, Ireland, 1899, National Library of Ireland, Flickr Commons

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National Library of Ireland, Harvest, 1897

Here’s one from the U.K., since I’ve got some British blood and I’ve never seen an oyster farm:

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Report on Oyster Cultivation, U.K., ca 1870, Flickr Commons

I Just Learned that . . .

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I’m reading Louise de Koven Bowen’s memoir Growing Up with  City. She became a Suffragette after reading about the British Suffragettes who locked themselves to fences in protest. She figured if these women would take such actions, there must be good reason to want to vote. (She was not an uneducated or stupid woman by any stretch so go figure. We sure can’t assume anything about people in the past.)

She describes the speeches she gave and the events she attended in this movement. After the women got the vote in 1923, Bowen was shocked that so few women did vote. I found a fascinating article that states that in 1923 in Chicago only 35% of women voted. The reasons were surprising to me. Some women didn’t believe politics was feminine. Some had husbands who wouldn’t permit it. The chart above shows all the reasons and data.

So the lesson is assume nothing. I had assumed that most women would vote after such a long fight for the right.

Sisters of the Gion

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While Memoirs of a Geisha painted a romantic portrait of geisha living in a Japanese Cinderella story, Sisters of Gion gives viewers a realistic view. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who’s fond of creating films about vulnerable women, the Sisters of Gion we see are the older, trusting Umekichi and the more perceptive, jaded O-Mocha. Umekichi’s patron has gone flat broke. He has to sell his store and his family has to move back to his wife’s hometown in disgrace. The wife isn’t the least bit happy about the shame that accompanies this fall.

The patron, Furusawa-san, accepts Umekichi’s offer to put him up. O-Mocha is incredulous and miffed. Doesn’t Umekichi realize that they’re just barely scrimping by? How can they take in a penniless former merchant? Quiet Umekichi ignores her younger sister, occasionally saying something about tradition or being good to people.

O-Mocha is the practical sister. She realizes that her sister needs a new patron, pronto and to get one she’ll need to be seen in an exquisite kimono at a top level party. O-Mocha gets her sister the needed invitation and figures out how to hustle an assistant in a kimono shop to help her sister. Later when the shop assistant is found out, O-Mocha cozies up to the shop owner who she wants to be her patron.

O-Mocha sees the geisha life for what it is — a way for men to have young playthings. It’s not a path she appears to have chosen, but she’s determined not to be a victim in the system, if that’s a possibility in a male dominated society.

The film was absorbing and often beautiful. I admired O-Mocha’s spunk and wished her sister would take some of her advice. It’s a classic, I’d love to see again.

Sepia Saturday

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When I saw this darling girl interrupted from her writing, I knew I wanted to find some good photos of people at their writing desk. It’s crucial to have a good place to think and write. Here’s what I found on Flickr Commons.

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Constantin Dumba, 1910, Library of Congress

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Miss Young, 1926 from Musée McCord

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G. Polacco, 1915, Library of Congress

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“Hygiene of the Schoolroom,” 1910 The Internet Archive

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“Hygiene of the School House,” 1910, Internet Archive

Sepia Saturday

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This week’s prompt sent me searching for nostalgic photos with mechanics. I was surprised that my Flickr Commons search yielded so many women fixing cars and planes.

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National Library of Scotland 1918

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University of British Columbia, 1914-18?

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U.S. National Archives, 1942

If you’d like to see more Sepia Saturday photos, click here.