Today's Reading

CHAPTER 3

ALL CHANGE

On November 11, 1918, the First World War came to an end. Peace reigned. Across the globe, around seventeen million people had died. Now, surely, it was time for living.

The end of the war brought change to the dial-painting studio. Many girls—Quinta Maggia was one—left to get married and start a family. Others, such as Mollie Maggia and Ella Eckert, who became great friends, continued to lip-point their brushes day in and day out. They liked being able to earn good money. Mollie became so independent that she left her family home and moved into an all-female boarding house. Her career gave her a sense of empowerment, a feeling that only increased in the summer of 1919 when Congress finally gave women the right to vote.

At the factory, too, change was afoot. The company began experimenting with the recipe of the luminous paint. The bosses now swapped radium for mesothorium. Mesothorium was an isotope—a different type—of radium, named radium-228. ("Normal" radium was called radium-226.) Mesothorium was also radioactive but had a half-life of 6.7 years, much shorter than radium-226's half-life, which was 1,600 years. (A half-life is the length of time that a radioactive substance is at full strength, before it diminishes into an ever-less-powerful version of itself.) Mesothorium was more abrasive than radium, and—most importantly—much cheaper.

Not that the company 'needed' to cut corners. It was not struggling financially. With the war over, the company's glow-in-the-dark paint was used for all sorts of things. Radium paint was now applied to fun and frivolous items, such as dolls' eyes, theater seats, fish bait, and even slippers (so you'd never lose them in the night). In 1919, meanwhile, there was a new production high of 2.2 million luminous watches.

No wonder Katherine Schaub was feeling tired. That fall, she noticed her legs felt curiously stiff. Yet she could do nothing but knuckle down to work.

But the postwar changes weren't over yet. Next, the firm laid off most of its dial-painters. The company had devised a new strategy. It helped watch manufacturers set up their own studios and still made money by supplying them with paint. Soon, there were fewer than a hundred dial-painters left in Orange. Katherine Schaub took a job in an office, while clever Grace Fryer landed an impressive position at a high-end bank. She loved traveling daily to her office, her dark hair neatly set and an elegant string of pearls around her neck, ready to jump into work that challenged her.

Mollie Maggia, however, kept working in the studio. Every morning, she went to work full of energy and enthusiasm, which was more than she could say for some of her colleagues. Marguerite Carlough, who could normally be relied on for a laugh, kept saying she felt tired all the time, while Hazel Vincent complained that her jaw ached something rotten. Hazel eventually left too. She asked the company doctor at her new office to examine her, but he was unable to diagnose her strange illness.

In October 1920, Hazel's former employer was featured in the local news. The radium company sold its industrial waste—which looked like seaside sand—to schools and playgrounds to use in children's sandboxes. Recently, kids' shoes were reported to have turned white because of it. One little boy even complained to his mother of a burning sensation in his hands. Yet in comments that were reassuring for ill dial-painters such as Hazel, von Sochocky said the radioactive sand was "most hygienic" for children to play in.

Katherine Schaub certainly had no worries about returning to the radium firm in November 1920. She took a temporary position training the new radium girls at the watch-company studios. These were mostly based in Connecticut, including at the Waterbury Clock Company. Katherine taught dozens of girls the lip-pointing technique that she herself had learned.

The new girls were excited to be working with radium. The craze around the wonder element continued, brought to fever pitch by a visit of Marie Curie herself to the United States in 1921. In January of that same year, as part of radium's constant press coverage, von Sochocky wrote an article for American magazine. "Locked up in radium is the greatest force the world knows," he wrote. "Through a microscope, you can see whirling, powerful, invisible forces, the uses of which," he admitted, "we do not yet understand." He added, "What radium means to us today is a great romance in itself. But what it may mean to us tomorrow, no man can foretell."

In fact, no man can foretell much, von Sochocky included. And there was one change in particular that the doctor didn't see coming. In summer 1921, he was fired from his own company after a corporate takeover. The newly named United States Radium Corporation (USRC) seemed destined for great things in the postwar world, but von Sochocky wouldn't be at the helm to guide it through whatever lay ahead.

Instead, it was the treasurer, Arthur Roeder, who slipped graciously into the vacant president's chair.


This excerpt is from the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli.
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