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When a Product's Radioactivity was a Selling Point

The 'wonder of the age' was in everything, from condoms to choolate

By Joe YoungPublished 3 months ago 5 min read
Photo by Ana Petrenko on Unsplash

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934) discovered radium in 1898. It is a chemical element with the symbol Ra and the atomic number 88. Marie, and her husband Pierre, won half of the Nobel prize for physics in 1903 (she would win a second prize for chemistry in 1911). To complete this little trivia section, Marie Curie was born in Poland.

The discovery of this new element caused a sensation. Throughout the early decades of the 20th century, radioactive substances, such as radium and thorium, were used in all manner of products, from cookware, to grey hair preventatives and drinking water.

The bandwagon for this miracle discovery was so great, that some products, such as certain butter and tobacco brands, took to adding the word radium to their packaging, even though there was none of that element present. Of those products that did contain radium, radioactivity was a major selling point, and that word, then hyphenated, would be writ large in advertisements.

There were also claims of increased virility and even rejuvenation, as the world became enamored with this amazing so-called rare earth element, which went into many products. Today, in our enlightenment, we would find such uses utterly abhorrent.

Here are seven such products, and I apologize in advance for overplaying the stereotype glow-in-the-dark property of some radioactive elements.

Radium wool

A photo in an old magazine advertisement for Laine Oradium wool depicts a smiling, waving infant, snug in a knitted cardigan. The image of a happy, healthy child dressed in comfortable clothing must have warmed the hearts of virtually every parent who viewed it.

The very idea of cosseting the one we cherish most in the world in a garment made from wool that boasts radioactivity as its main selling point, is unthinkable today. But in the 1930s, when radium was viewed as the wonder of the age, it was just another product that had jumped aboard the bandwagon.

Radium face cream

After getting petit Jacques to sleep with a lullaby, and placing his radioactive cardigan on a chair, to be worn again the following day, the au courant mum prepares for her own night’s sleep. Her routine includes the application of Tho-Radia face cream, a cosmetic that boasts trace amounts of thorium and radium.

Unaware of the toxicity of what she has applied directly to her face, the sleepy mum retires, amazed that she can read her book without the aid of a bedside lamp. A glowing complexion indeed.

Radium condoms

Said to be the inspiration for the glow stick (citation needed), radium even found its way into prophylactics. Marketers had already associated radium with virility, so this seemed like a natural progression.

One brand of condom, Nutex, displayed the word radium prominently on the lid of its tins, which housed three sheaths. The blurb on the packaging makes no claim that radium is present, so maybe it was just an advertising ploy.

Radium chocolate

Alongside the claims of improved virility, radium was also pushed as having rejuvenating powers. One German confectioner, Burk & Braun, introduced Radium Schokolade, a chocolate bar which, the manufacturers claimed, was a veritable elixir of youth.

And so, with a calorie counter in one hand, and a Geiger counter in the other, the hopeful fraulein set about achieving her goal of banishing the signs of aging, a Benjamin Chocolate Button, if you will. The long-term benefits of Radium Schokolade or a complete absence thereof were never discovered, as the confection was discontinued after only five years.

Radium suppositories

Like many similar manufacturers at the time, the makers of Vita Radium suppositories wanted to shout from the rooftops that their product contained radium. So much so, they guaranteed it in their advertisements.

Playing the vitality card, an advertisement for Vita Radium ran the heading FOR RESTORING SEX POWER. The blurb went on to say that weak, discouraged men could “bubble over with joyous vitality through the use of glands and radium.”

There is a common saying applied to someone who is a favorite, that the sun shines out of their behind. Perhaps it was just a Vita Radium suppository.

Radium toothpaste

If ever there was a dental product that could play on the beaming smile phrase, it was radioactive dentifrice.

One such brand, from the 1920s, was Doramad, a German-made toothpaste that contained thorium. Like similar products, Doramad placed the word radio-aktiv (sic) prominently in its advertising. There were claims as to all manner of health benefits to be had by using this toothpaste, but the thought of putting even a minuscule amount of thorium into the mouth is a serious no-no.

Radium paint

And now, sadly, the light-hearted tone of this piece takes a more somber turn.

The development of radioactive paint that would glow in the dark was manna from heaven to the manufacturers of watches and clocks.

Applying such paint to the numbers and pointers of timepieces made it possible to check a wristwatch on the darkest of country lanes, or read the time on a bedside alarm clock without having to switch on the light. Every home had to have one.

But, the harsh reality of the toxicity of radioactive products was about to present itself in the cruelest way. It was customary for young women who applied luminous paint to watch faces to roll the tip of the paintbrush to a fine point between their lips.

Eventually, workers succumbed to the most unpleasant symptoms of radiation poisoning, including, sore throat, memory loss, softening of the teeth, spontaneous bone fractures, and, most horrifically, so-called radium jaw, a form of necrosis that was caused by the ingestion of radium. The awful disfigurement this caused to formerly healthy young women was appalling.

Meanwhile, those at the top played a game of fudge and pass-the-buck in an attempt to evade responsibility and avoid paying out compensation. The story of those unfortunates, and their fight for justice, is told in the 2018 film, Radium Girls, which is available on Netflix.

The gratitude we should take from the misfortune of those mentioned above is that products today are far more thoroughly tested before they are allowed onto the open market.


About the Creator

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

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