“I seen something strange. “Violet, did you paint your hair too?” “No. Of course not.” “Then how come there’s a halo around your head? Like there’s paint in your hair?”(Radium Halos)
Many women worked as dial painters at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Radium Halos, by Shelley Stout revolves around Violet and Helen Meisner who were enticed by their friend Clara Jane to join her in Ottawa, Illinois, to work at the Radium Dial Company where they would make excellent wages. It was the summer of 1923. Clara Jane already worked there and convinced them both to join her. The lure of good wages, to enable them to buy nice items for themselves hooked them. Knowing their father wouldn’t give his approval, the girls fabricated a story telling him they’d gotten jobs in a music shop in Ottawa. During that particular summer all three girls become entangled in a tragic mishap and a secret they all promise to take to their graves.
From the beginning Helen shares this story with the reader and the fate of her sister Violet. The book moves from past to the present day where it’s discovered Helen suffers from mental instability. Helen also enlightens the reader with some of the history surrounding the company. The women working at the Radium Dial Company would dip their brushes into the small jar containing the bluish-green luminous paint and “kiss the brush between their lips” to make the tip more pointed. It made the brush nice and sharp therefore easier to apply the paint onto the numbers on the clocks and watches which was called “tipping.” The clock dials glowed in the dark because of the radium paint. Supervisors encouraged workers to do the procedure this way and even demonstrated it themselves. One supervisor even dipped a spatula into the paint and licked it to show it was safe. The female workers swallowed too much radium paint by following this procedure which resulted in many of them becoming sick and eventually developing cancer. In many cases it was jaw cancer. Eventually these women tried to receive money from the company to pay for their medical bills. These women were called, “The Ottawa Society of the Living Dead.” It began as early as 1934.
The story progresses to modern day and Helen as an older woman is under the care of Violet’s daughter, Pearl. She has a son, Tony, and his girlfriend, Adrienne also play a significant part in the story. Eventually a letter is sent to her deceased sister, Violet, from the Argonne Laboratory. They are requesting her to go to be tested for radium exposure. Pearl is unaware of her mother or Helen ever working at the company. Since Violet and Helen kept their job in Ottawa a secret, Helen is afraid to say she and her sister had ever been employed there. Helen is terrified their secret disaster will be discovered and she will have to pay the price alone.
I was drawn to this particular story on a personal note. I had two relatives who worked at the Ottawa Radium Dial Company. One was a great-aunt who developed cancer and died at a fairly young age. The family stories surrounding this always included the information on the “tipping” procedure. Another female relative also worked there. She eventually developed a mastoid tumor. She was one of the women contacted by Argonne Laboratory to follow up on with medical exams and her exposure to radiation levels. The Case of the Living Dead Women site is an excellent source for actual newspaper articles. There was also a play based on the Radium Dial Company, entitled, “These Shining Lives.”
Shelley Stout wonderfully recreates the history surrounding the Ottawa Radium Dial Company, the early 1900’s, and effectively ties it together with Helen and Violet’s story. The Radium Dial Company and the “Radium Girls” played a significant role and impacted health and the labor rights movement. The owners of the company knew of the effects of handling radium yet exposed these women to deathly danger. Stout has skillfully and completely done her research on this subject.
Radium Halos is one historical fiction book you won’t want to miss!