7 "Hot" Products: Radioactive Gifts and Gadgets of Yesteryear [Slide Show]
With another holiday shopping season upon us, here is a look back at some of the consumer items of the early 20th century that had some gift givers and receivers radiating more than just smiles
Credits: ORAU/Bill Kolb
FOR THAT RADIANT LOOK In the 1920s and 1930s radioactive elements also made their way into many cosmetic products. "People at the time thought radium was healthful and would make them beautiful," the U.I.C.'s Mullner says. Tho-Radia, a face cream and powder, boasted a double whammy of radioactivity in the form of both thorium and radium. The face cream contained half a gram of thorium chloride and 0.25 milligram of radium in a 100-gram sample, according to a study published in 2007 in
Current Oncology. The formula was patented in France in 1932. Until 2003, historians had assumed that the advertised inventor of this formula, a Dr. Alfred Curie, was merely an invention of the manufacturer, probably fabricated to cash in on the famous Curie name. Although no relation to the Nobel laureates Marie or Pierre Curie, who discovered radium in 1898, Alfred Curie apparently was a genuine French physician; whether he had any role in concocting Tho-Radia remains unknown.
PLATE WARMER This handsome dishware, part of the Fiesta line originally introduced by the Homer Laughlin China Co. in 1936, had a special ingredient in its glaze: uranium. The "brilliant red" hue seen in the plate (pictured) contained particularly high levels of uranium oxide. For decades, ceramic manufacturers relied on uranium to impart a rich coloring to their products, including floor tiles and pottery, but the element has not been used in domestic dishware for more than 20 years. A 2001 Nuclear Regulatory Commission report (pdf) pooled data on radiation exposure from uranium-containing dinnerware; even in the higher estimates the exposures were no worse than the federal occupational exposure limit. The Fiesta line, sans uranium, continues to be sold today, and vintage Fiesta dinnerware items are a popular collectors' item.
Homer Laughlin China Co.
HOT CHOCOLATE We all love our sweets, making chocolate a classic gift for almost any occasion. A German company called Burk & Braun apparently sought to improve on the popularity of its products by sprinkling radium into its cocoa. This chocolate bar was sold in Germany between 1931 and 1936 and was supposedly marketed for its rejuvenating abilities. Many companies, food-makers included, often splashed the word "radium" on their products for its buzz factor, rather like "turbo" or "platinum" has shown up on more recent consumer items.
WATCH OUT Clock-makers circa 1920 turned to radium-laced, glow-in-the-dark paint to light up the dials on watch and clock faces. Companies often employed young women to paint the numerals and clock hands, even encouraging workers to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to keep them sharp. "There was a case at a plant in Ottawa [in Illinois], where a teacher of the girls would take a spatula of radium paint and eat it to prove it was safe," says the University of Illinois at Chicago's (U.I.C.) Mullner, who wrote the 1999 book
Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy. Once in the body, radium chemically acts like calcium—the elements share the same column in the periodic table—and is deposited in bones. The unfortunate women suffered symptoms such as skin ulcerations and anemia, and years later many came down with various cancers. Five female victims who had worked at an Orange, N.J., facility sued their employer, the United States Radium Corporation; the company settled in 1928. This infamous "Radium Girls" case prompted the passing of occupational safety laws and helped alert the general public to the possible dangers of radioactivity. The tragedy in turn spurred scientific research into the risks of radiation exposure and the defining of acceptable occupational limits.
Nowadays, many illuminated watch dials get their glow from electricity, courtesy of batteries, although "radioluminescent" dials are still produced for deep-sea diving watches, for instance. Instead of radium, however, an isotope of hydrogen called tritium is used, and the overall radiation exposure to the wearer is insignificant. ORAU Advertisement
ELIXIR OF HALF-LIFE To be fair, it was not just trend-spotting commercialists like inventor William J. A. Bailey who got swept up in the radiation craze. "Physicians took off with the idea...they tried to use it for every disease under the sun," says Ross Mullner, an associate professor of health policy and administration at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
One person who should not have followed his doctor's advice was Eben Byers, a wealthy socialite and industrialist. After suffering an arm injury, and per a physician's recommendation, Byers began imbibing radium-infused drinks, such as Radithor, shown here. (Modern-day sports drinks, with their Technicolor complexions, only look radioactive in comparison.) Marketed as "perpetual sunshine" in a bottle and as a "cure for the living dead," Radithor instead led to Byers losing most of his jaw and having holes form in his skull. His death in 1932 at the age of 51 received significant media attention and largely ended the radium drink fad, Mullner says.
As for Bailey, he died of bladder cancer in 1949 at the age of 64. According to a 1993 Scientific American article, the self-titled "Doctor" Bailey "never agreed that small doses of radioactivity were harmful, and he asserted that his health and spirits were excellent almost to the end." ORAU/Roger Macklis
QUITE A TESTI-MONIAL Other, earlier items were not as harmless as Gilbert's Atomic Lab. The Radiendocrinator, circa 1930, serves as one glaring example. Working off the assumption (or at least public perception) that radiation offered health benefits and sexual fitness, inventor William J. A. Bailey produced this classy leatherette case containing a small, gold-plated device shaped like a thick credit card. This handy size aided the Radiendocrinator's placement near selected parts of the body, such as the testicles. Men were instructed to "wear [an] adaptor like any 'athletic strap,' (the cloth label in front). This puts the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed." Similar products existed for women, as well. ORAU's Frame notes that the Radiendocrinator remained radioactive decades later; before publicly exhibiting it, he had to remove the radiation source—radium-soaked pieces of blotter paper—for safety reasons.
The true extent of how many people were exposed to and later developed radiation sickness from the Radiendocrinator and other products like it will never be known, says Gary Mansfield, a retired radiation health expert who worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "Back then not a lot was known about many of the aspects of radiation and radioactivity; people were still figuring it out," he says.
So how did Bailey, who proclaimed himself an avid user of his own products, fare? Learn his fate on the next slide. ORAU/Texas Department of Health, courtesy of Robin Houston
NUCLEAR FAMILY FUN The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab drops the proverbial bomb on today's kiddie microscope sets. It boasted more than 150 different experiments using four varieties of uranium ore (uranium is weakly radioactive), along with radioactive isotopes of lead, ruthenium and zinc, plus an array of detection instruments, including a Geiger counter. The kit was only available from 1951 to 1952, however, owing in part to its price tag ($50 then, or about $400 in 2008 dollars). Despite its panoply of unstable, radioactive materials, the Atomic Energy Lab did not seriously endanger the tykes who played with it—unlike other radioactive products from the first half of the 20th century. "The uranium ore in these kits was not very radioactive," says Paul Frame, a health physicist at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) and curator of the Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection. "In fact, these kits might have encouraged children to study science."
ORAU/Bill Kolb Advertisement