By Anne Eickstadt

ANNE EICKSTADT PHOTO Belvidere Republican
Historic photos, articles and exhibits from the Radium Dial Memorial are on display during the performance of Radium Girls this weekend.

From 1917-1935 radium was all the rage. A glowing radium watch was a must-have item. In factories, young women painted face dials with radioactive material. Unaware that the paint was harmful, they would place the brush tip on their lips to achieve a fine point.

After suffering from radium poisoning, several young women sued their employers and brought national attention to the safety of workers. These young women helped create new laws to protect all workers.

These watches became popular with American soldiers, who used them to tell time in darkness. The soldiers made these watches fashionable when they returned to the United States.

“The method of pointing the brush with the lips was taught us, to give the brush an exceedingly fine point.” – Katherine Schaub, April 1928.

“Though we all feel that someone should have warned us, none of us knew that paint paste was dangerous …. We were only girls, 15, 17 and 19 years old.” -Katherine Schaub, May 1928.

“The Radium Girls saga holds an important place in the history of both the field of health physics and the labor rights movement. The right of individual workers to sue for damages from corporations due to labor abuse was established as a result of the Radium Girls case. In the wake of the case, industrial safety standards were demonstrably enhanced for many decades,” says the website for the Radium Girls Memorial. The Radium Dial Memorial can be found on the corner of Clinton Street and Jefferson Street, Ottawa, Ill.

Seth Lambright is directing this play by the Main Street Players of Boone County. He recently visited the Radium Dial Memorial in person. The visit affected him deeply and he has attempted to bring that feeling into the performance.

He also returned with numerous items ranging from newspaper articles to radium-infused drink bottles, which were supposed to be the latest “miracle cure” of the day. These items are currently on display during the run of the play for theater-goers to appreciate.

Play synopsis: In 1926, radium was a miracle cure, Madame Curie an international celebrity and luminous watches the latest rage–until the girls who painted them began to fall ill with a mysterious disease. Inspired by a true story, “Radium Girls” traces the efforts of Grace Fryer, a dial painter, as she fights for her day in court.

Her chief adversary is her former employer, Arthur Roeder, an idealistic man who cannot bring himself to believe that the same element that shrinks tumors could have anything to do with the terrifying rash of illnesses among his employees. As the case goes on, however, Grace finds herself battling not just the U.S. Radium Corp. but with her own family and friends who fear that her campaign for justice will backfire.

The final weekend of the run of the Radium Girls performances is Nov. 19-21, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Community Building Complex, 111 West 1st St.. Belvidere.

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