This week’s Genius Idea might be a bit dated, but it goes to serve a higher point.
You can’t swing a dead cat in any Sephora, Ulta or Douglas without hitting a beauty product that doesn’t promise luminance, rejuvenation, brightening, radiance and a healthy glow, but if you thought those taglines were anything new, we’ve got a chilling look at history for you.
Radium, first discovered by Madame Currie (you may remember her as the brilliant physicist and chemist that died from radiation exposure) and her husband Pierre on December 21st, 1898, is a chemical element that was considered to be the kale of the 1920s, used in everything from paint to toothpaste.
The only problem with the world’s love of radium was that it was and is radioactive.
First, let’s talk about the famous Radium Girls. Many clocks from the late 1910s to mid-1920s were painted with a special paint called, Undark, which thanks to the radium in it allowed the clock to glow in the dark, a major boon then for people needing to check the time in the wee hours of the morning.
The US Radium Corporation had a large workforce of mostly women that spent their days painting the surface of the clocks with Undark, where in order to make fine brush strokes they developed a habit of licking the end of the brush. This of course, would produce glow in the dark tongues, teeth and before long the look was finished with the workers deciding to also paint their fingernails with Undark to wow their outside friends.
Unfortunately, the workers started to suffer from bleeding gums, anemia, brittle bones and necrosis of the jaw. At the time, Occam’s razor and the company said that, well, these female factory workers were loose women and probably just had syphilis.
Five of the Radium Girls sued their employer, and the case was eventually settled years later in 1928, and ultimately the Five were given a lump sum of $10,000 (around $132,000 in 2015), $600 ($8,200 in 2015) per year and the promise that the US Radium Corporation would cover all of their medical expenses.
Of course, as we stated before, radium wasn’t just used for clocks. You name it, and most likely there was someone willing to hawk it with added radium. Wool came with a radium finish. Corsets, shoe polish, cigarettes, heating pads, household cleaners, suppositories (yes, even those), fertilizers and condoms had radium.
Radium mixed with wax rods were shoved into the urethra to help with impotency.
If you were feeling a kind of general malaise about life, doctors recommend you drink water charged with radium. You know, for your health.
Have crows’ feet? Well, get yourself a great big glass of water from your household Revigator.
Hair thinning? Inject a little radium into your vein and you be alright.
London’s Boots carried radium in all of their locations, and the English still couldn’t get enough of this scientific beauty miracle.
The men at the top of the radium cosmetics push were Pharmacist Alexis Moussali and his partner, Dr. Alfred Curie (no, it was just a stroke of advertising luck as he wasn’t related to Marie or Pierre) and their up market brand Tho-Radia, which produced toothpaste, face crèmes, powders, soap, facial cleansers, lipstick and more.
It’s interesting to point out that when some of the Tho-Radia products were tested in the 1960’s, they were still found to have radioactive properties. Talk about getting your money’s worth.
The press loved radium and were quick to applaud Tho-Radia as they told the public that their products, “Stimulates cellular vitality, activates circulation, firms skin, eliminates fats, stops enlarged pores forming, stops and cures boils, pimples, redness, pigmentation, protects from the elements, stops ageing and gets rid of wrinkles, conserves the freshness and brightness of the complexion.”
Are you a disciple of Glam Glow? Well, radium complexion clays and muds were a big draw in the 1920s. Radium health spas had your skin covered with radium mud baths, radium cucumber water and radium lotions. You could even spend the afternoon, or your whole vacation in a radium mine or cave sold to the public as, “Healing rooms.”
So keep the radium craze in the back of your mind as you fill your online shopping cart with beauty goodies from AliExpress or Walmart.