Clark: Radium girls, women and industrial health reform 1910-1935

Richard Watkins

NAWCC Fellow
May 2, 2004
I normally don't post reviews, but this book stirred me up!

USA: University of North Carolina Press, 1997

Contents: Introduction (11 pages) and 8 chapters: Watch Alice glow, the New Jersey radium dialpainters (27 pages); The unknown god, radium, research and business (26 pages); Something about that factory, the dialpainters and the Consumers’ League (22 pages); A hitherto unrecognized occupational hazard, the discovery of radium poisoning (25 pages); A David fighting the Goliath of industrialism, compensation in New Jersey and Connecticut (37 pages); Gimme a gamma, iatrogenic radium poisoning (12 pages); We slapped radium around like cake frosting, dialpainting in Illinois (19 pages).
With a conclusion, notes, bibliography and index.

This book is based on a dissertation for a uiniversity higher degree. It is detailed history and analysis of industrial health reform in America, centered on the tragic deaths of dial painters. Consequently it is not light reading and has only marginal relevance to horology. Indeed, after reading a couple of pages of the introduction I decided it was not worth reading the rest; it would be too dry, too technical and the story would be buried under academic language and technique. Fortunately I read the first chapter!
Although most watch and clock collectors will never read this book, hopefully some will. It is a detailed, insightful examination of the conflict between business and government on the one hand, and the rights of workers on the other.
What is simply appalling is that some scientists, doctors and dentists demonstrated utter incompetence or they simply lied (Clark is careful not to be too precise, but it is clear that many deliberately lied). Throughout the book we are told how busenesses suppressed evidence, paid professionals to provide suitable reports, and influenced governments to make it almost impossible for the sick and dying dial-painters to receive any sort of justice.
This is not an attack on America. I have no doubt that exactly the same events occurred in other countries, including England and Australia. Indeed, similar events are still occurring, where business deliberately uses the legal system and influence to prevent just claims receiving just outcomes; the recent antics of an Australian firm to avoid liability for deaths from asbestos is a case in point.
Equally it is not an attack on capitalism; there is growing evidence of similar activities in communist countries.
It is, unfortunately symptomatic of the human condition. Those who achieve power largely do so by ruthless suppression of others, often motivated by greed. I suspect some watch collectors might fall into this class. Anyway, the present day Swiss watch industry panders to this greed and need for status, manufacturing watches for maybe 100 million rich, while the remaining 6 billion of us largely go without. The rest of us hope, often without much hope, that we might be treated fairly.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

NAWCC Star Fellow
NAWCC Fellow
NAWCC Life Member
Sep 23, 2001
Thank you Richard for your insightful and moving review of Claudia Clark's "Radium Girls". It is indeed a very touching investigation into the human ascpects of one of the darkest chapters of the American watchmaking industry.

The book is now considered a "classic" and "must read" title not for students of horology, but is often required reading in university courses on the history of the labor movement and the the history of industrial health.

Incidentally there are at least two readily available additional titles on the subject:

Besides Clark:

# Title: Radium Girls
SubTitle: Woman and Industrial Health Reform 1910-1935
# Author: Claudia Clark
# Publisher: University of North Cartolina Press
Keywords: diaL
Other Keywords: luminous radium LABOUIR HEALTH
ISBN: 0 8978 4640 6 -- Library of Congress: HD6067.2.U6C55 1997 96-27358 -- Dewey: 363.11'9681114-dc20
Language: ENG
Notes: history of watch dial painting of luminous doials in the USA early 2oth Century
Edition: 1997, 1st edition -- Copyright: 1997
Kind: Book
Type: Wrist Watch
Geographic area: USA
Topic: Making Industry
Organization: NA/other
Pages: 289 -- Height in cm: 23
Print Status: 2 (1 means in print - 2 means out of print)
BHM ID: 795

there is a second publication by the same title and inspired by Clark:

# Title: Radium Girls
SubTitle: A Play in Two Acts
# Author: D.W.Gregory
# Publisher: Dramatic Publishing
Other Keywords: luminous dials drama radiation
Language: ENG
Edition: 2003 -- Copyright: 2003
Kind: Book
Type: Watch (general)
Geographic area: USA
Topic: Fiction
Organization: NA/other
Pages: 111 -- Height in cm: 18
Print Status: 1 (1 means in print - 2 means out of print)
Entered By: FMM
BHM ID: 10751

as well as a scholarly text examining the same story from a public health policy perspective:

* Title: Deadly Glow
SubTitle: The Radium DIal Worker Tragedy
* Author: Ross Mullner
* Publisher: American Public Health Association
Keywords: dial/hands
Other Keywords: radium -- Library of Congress: 99-07688
Language: ENG
Notes: Monograph exploring the health risks encountered by young women in the american factories painting self luminescent watch dials containing radioactive Radium, and how society dealt with the devastating effects.
Edition: 1999 1st edition -- Copyright: 1999
Kind: Book
Type: Watch (general)
Geographic area: USA
Topic: Sociology
Organization: NA/other
Pages: 175 -- Height in cm: 25
Print Status: 1 (1 means in print - 2 means out of print)
Entered By: FMM
BHM ID: 10552

For those horologists who go beyond the investigation of the phyical artifacts, and who do study the corporate histories of the major watch and clock manufacturers it behooves us to read up and study not only the history and lives of the inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists, but also the history of the organized (and unorganized) labor movement in "our" industry, as well as examine the political and sociological impact the horological industry has had on social history. Being often situated outside of heavily industrial areas industrial watch and clockmaking (especially in Germany and Switzerland) was out of the geographic mainstream of the traditional labor unions. I am aware of at least a dozen book published in the last 20 years or so who specifically deal with the labor perspective (or the local sociological or political impact) in the horological industry in the black forest, in the Swiss Jura and in neighboring France. But none of those titles is in English.

I am aware of only two museums that currently dal with that aspect of horological history: The Stadtmuseum in SChramberg (Black Forest) has a significant section devoted to it, and the Museum Neuhaus (in Biel, Switzerland) deals with the subject as well. (Both are run by municipalities that have or had socialist local governement)


Kevin W.

NAWCC Member
Apr 11, 2002
Nepean, Ontario, Canada
Sounds a lot like the government, lying and paying people off.

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