Before the negative side effects of a little something called radium were fully understood, it was the kind of ingredient that got tossed into just about every type of product you could imagine. Of course, this was in the early 1900s, and radium had really only been around since 1898 when Marie and Pierre Currie discovered it and later turned that discovery into a Nobel prize five years later. How could something with an intoxicating glow to it be bad for you, right?
Starting in 1910, if your product didn’t have radium in it, it got lost in an ever-expanding pack of those that did. And those products that claimed to have the radioactive edge but really didn’t? Thankfully the U.S. government would step in and put an end to the misleading advertising.
The number of products seen in the marketplace was astounding. Everything from radium-impregnated fabrics used to wrap babies and help with arthritis to a radioactive heating pad, to a radium tonic to prevent grey hair to radium bath salts to Dengen’s Radio-Active Eye Applicators, a pair of eye-glasses that instead of lenses placed pods filled with radioactive materials right next to the eyes and claimed to restore perfect vision and cure headaches.
For two decades radium was something that was willfully worn, ingested, or shoved up the nether bits with complete disregard for the growing number of suspicious deaths surrounding those that manufactured the goods consumers were clamoring for. Yes, radium isn’t always bad and does exist naturally in the wild (brazil nut, anyone?), but only in extremely small and harmless doses.
As for the the Curries who discovered radium way back when? Their laboratory notebooks from that era are still too radioactive to handle, more than 100 years after the fact.
We can partially blame Marie Curie personally for the radium craze. Right up until her untimely death (due to radiation poisoning) she continued to look for ways her discovery could benefit humanity. Right before she died, with hands burned by radioactivity, she wrote about “medical therapeutics” involving radiation.
She suggested there could be a powerful medicinal benefit to drinking water suffused with radon — a radioactive gas created by the breakdown of thorium and uranium — injecting irradiated saline into veins, muscles or joints, inhaling radon-laced air, or taking a nice bath in radioactive water. Mind you, she was a scientist, so she does note that “the scientific basis is here still little developed and the empirical character prevails.”
The medical profession runs with it anyway, and doctors begin writing radium prescriptions for arthritis, gout, hypertension, sciatica, lumbago and a host of other ailments. In 1916 the medical journal Radium — yes, there was an actual journal of medicine called Radium — declares that “Radium has absolutely no toxic effect, being harmoniously accepted by the human body, as solar light for plants.”
It takes a little time for the empirical characters of dosing yourself with radiation every day make themselves apparent, but by then it’s a bit too late for some.
For the record, the health effects from radium exposure include cancer, anemia, cataracts, and death. Granted, it is used therapeutically in cancer radiation treatments, but only because it is so effective at killing cells; one just hopes it manages to kill all the cancer cells before it has the chance to kill the ones you need. You know, to live.
Radioactive Chocolate Bar
With radium mania taking a firm grip on the consciousness of the shopping decision-makers of the world, producers began shoving the stuff in anything they could. Food was an easy choice. And everybody loves chocolate, right?
The Radium Schokolade chocolate bar was manufactured by Burk & Braun in Germany, and sold as a way to make you look and feel younger. Rejuvenating, they called it.
Europeans could also choose Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread, made with that amazing radium water.
These were sold from 1931 to 1936, when they were discontinued. Any connection between sweet-loving Germans chowing down on radioactive candy and the rise of Nazism are surely coincidental.
We don’t mean to pick on the poor Germans, but in addition to glowing chocolate and Hitler they also gave us toothpaste laced with a bit of thorium. Honestly, the radiation levels were really low, but it still made claim to some pretty amazing properties:
“Its radioactive radiation increases the defenses of the teeth and gums. The cells are loaded with a new energy of life, the destructive effect of bacteria is hampered. That explains the excellent prophylaxis and the healing process of gum disease … ”
This product flew off the shelves between 1940 and 1945, which of course is smack dab in the height of World War II. So we can probably be glad that German scientists were more interested in putting radioactive stuff into dental hygiene products than they were into, say, bombs.
Batschari Radium Cigarettes
Ok. What is it with the Germans and their radioactive gimmicks? Putting a whole new spin on the concept of the death stick, the Batschari tobacco company in Baden-Baden, Germany made radium cigarettes between 1910 and 1915.
Wait…wasn’t that during World War I? Could there be an unexplored connection between Prussian aggression and the amount of radiation coursing through their blood?
Oh wait, the Americans were even crazier about radium than the Germans. We give you Exhibit A: radioactive suppositories. Because nothing screams “health!” more than shoving a radioactive pellet up your ass.
Seriously, the advertising copy says it better than we ever could:
“Vita Radium Suppositories, for rectal use by men, are tone restorers of sex and energizers for the entire nervous, glandular and circulatory systems. These Suppositories contain a result-producing amount of highly refined soluble RADIUM, carried in a cocoa butter base. The radium is absorbed thru the walls of the lower colon, enters the blood stream and is carried to all parts of the body-to the weakened organs that need its vitalizing aid. After leaving its durable HEALTHY RESULTS, the radium is gradually eliminated in about three days. Vita Radium Suppositories are guaranteed entirely harmless.
Recommended for sexually weak men who, however, should use the NU_MAN Tablets in connection for best results. Also, splendid for piles and rectal sores. Try them and see what good results you get!”
And how would the “Weak Discouraged Men” know that their treatment was working? Well, obviously, they would now:
“Bubble Over with Joyous Vitality Through the Use of Glands and Radium… properly functioning glands make themselves known in a quick, brisk step, mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word… A man must be in a bad way indeed to sit back and be satisfied without the pleasures that are his birthright!… Try them and see what good results you get!”
Take that, Viagra.
The company that sold these little miracle workers, the Radium Remedies Company of Pittsburgh, had a number of other irradiated products available between 1917 and 1929, but nothing of this calibre.
Nutex Radium Condoms
So let’s say you’ve been dutifully keeping some highly refined soluble RADIUM, carried in a cocoa butter base up your ass for a while, and are enjoying some properly functioning glands at last. You need to make sure you can enjoy the pleasures that are your birthright with a clear conscience.
Fear not, glowing Lothario, Nutex Radium Condoms to the rescue!
Hell yes, people, those Germans with their chocolate and toothpaste have nothing on American ingenuity. Down the road from Radium Remedies Company of Pittsburgh the Nutex Company of Philadelphia was shilling radioactive rubbers.
But hold. Were they really?
Could this just be an example of clever marketing jumping on the bandwagon and trying to get you to think you were protected by the prophylactic powers of radiation?
Well, the product was taken off the market in 1940 after the Federal Trade Commission rules that the company made “false and misleading” representations that the product “was absolutely perfect, would afford protection, and would be effective for the prevention of disease.”
Now, maybe this was a condemnation of radium as a path to safe sex, or maybe they were just really shitty condoms.
Sources: Nutex Condoms
Radium Hand Cleaner
Now ladies, don’t feel left out because the men got all the cool radioactive toys. In the 1910s, the Radium Compound Company of Phoenix, New York produced radium hand cleaners. And while these were not specifically meant for use by women, and in addition to cleaning hands (“Quickly removes grease, paint, tar, rust and all other discolorations without irritating the skin. It cleanses softens and heals”), the recommended use was also for “Kettles, Frying Pans, Pails, Stewpots, Roasters and Tea Kettles,” we can pretty safely make some assumptions about the target audience here. After all, this was the 1910’s.
So far, this looks like the best stuff to try. After all, it does “take off everything but the skin!”
Tho-Radia Beauty Products
Now that your skin is cleaner than ever before, you need to give that healthy radioactive glow. Lucky for you, Tho-Radia gave you a whole product line to choose from. There were perfumes, creams, facial powders, lipsticks and other beauty products, all with a healthy smattering of thorium-cloride and radium mixed up in them. It promised to rejuvenate and brighten the skin, and surely nobody would promise something like that if they couldn’t deliver.
The ads for Tho-Radia proudly proclaimed that these products were presented to you by a man named Docteur Alfred Curie. Was he real, or was he an Aunt Jemima-like marketing fabrication meant to make you think this product was somehow directly linked to Marie or Pierre?
Surprise! Alfred was a read dude. And a doctor, too! And French, so really a docteur! But not, it would seem, any relation to Pierre Curie. Ah well, at least he was clever enough to take advantage of the coincidence. Or…maybe it was the coincidental same name that got him into the business.
The Tho Radia brand was registered for “pharmaceutical, beauty and pharmacy products” and launched in 1933, the same year Curie registered a trademark for a Crème Radio-Thorium despite, apparently, having no previous interest or experience in pharmaceuticals.
And because we feel bad about picking on the Germans earlier, we’ll point out that Alfred Curie pushed a line of radium toothpaste to the American market as well.
Radium Brand Creamery Butter
Ok, here’s one that probably most definitely for sure didn’t have any radium in it. It’s obvious, because look: those cows all have the right number of legs and horns. No radiation on that dairy farm, nope.
The power of the radium idea was strong enough to merit being used in the branding anyway. It makes no claim to be radioactive, or to offer any of the supposed benefits of radioactivity, or even to be anything except rich, creamery butter. But given the choice between ordinary butter and radium butter, which are you gonna choose, sucker?
Radithor, Radioactive Water
Radithor sounds like a monstrous foe of Godzilla, but it was a tonic that came in a little bottle, and was advertised as a medicine for arthritis, rheumatism, mental illnesses, stomach cancer and impotence. It was nothing but triple distilled water with a teeny tiny bit of radium in it.
The name is a combination of radium and mesothorium, an isotope of radium, but it was also called “Liquid Sunshine” and “A Cure for the Living Dead.”
It is unclear whether wealthy American socialite, athlete and industrialist Eben Beyers suffered from arthritic, rheumatism, mental illness, stomach cancer, or impotence, but he did start drinking it to help heal a broken arm so he could get back out onto the golf course. But since he reportedly drank 1400 bottles of the stuff, he may have had other issues. He died a few years later after losing most of his jaw. See, when you eat or drink radium it gets absorbed into the bone, and eats away at your skeleton. It’s not a nice way to die.
Beyers was buried in a lead-lined coffin in Pittsburgh, and when his body was exhumed 33 years later for study, they found it to still be seriously radioactive.
But if you were more of a DIY kind of person, or just couldn’t afford the hefty pricetag on Radithor, you could always make your own radium water. There were radioactive coins you could use to drop into some water and “charge” it with the sweet, sweet, goodness of radium, or there were dispensers like the Revigator, which stored a gallon of water inside a radium-laced bucket.
Sources: Real Energy Drinks
Atomic Energy Lab
It only sold for two years, and it never sold well. It was expensive, and it was intimidating, and it did not, alas, contain even the hint of an A-Bomb. Still, it was an Atomic Energy Lab, and it was a toy.
The A. C. Gilbert Company’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab went for around $50, which was really pricey at the time, but look what you got!
The set came in its own handy carrying case with four types of uranium ore: a beta-alpha source (Pb-210), a pure beta source (Ru-106?), a gamma source (Zn-65), and a a spinthariscope, which is a cloud chamber with its own short-lived alpha source (Po-210). But wait, there’s more. You also received an electroscope, a Geiger counter, a manual, a comic book (Dagwood Splits the Atom) and a government manual “Prospecting for Uranium.” Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.
If you ever ran out of your radioactive sources, don’t fret. You could always order more.
It seems crazy to us today that only 5000 of these sets were sold, but there you have it. The rarity does make for a collector’s dream, however. Today a set in good condition can fetch thousands of dollars.
Source: Atomic Toy
Of all the products described so far, none of them actually, literally glow. But don’t think for a second that people didn’t use radium to make things fun in the dark.
The United States Radium Corporation applied radium-infused paint called UnDark onto the the numbers and hands on watch faces, as well as onto military instrument panels so that they were visible without a light source.
The work was done by hand in the factory by a group of workers who became known as the “Radium Girls.” The work required great detail, so to get a fine tip on their radium-coated paintbrushes the women were told to “point” the small brush head with their lips. They did this hundreds of times a day, each time painting a dab of radium onto their lips and tongue. The young women couldn’t resist also painting their nails and teeth with the luminous paint.
Then the Radium Girls began to die.
In 1925, the New York Times ran an article about a new radium disease called “radium necrosis.” It had claimed 5 of the girls when their jaws disintegrated and their mouths developed incurable cancerous tumors. The U.S. Radium Company had suspected something was up long before this. The year before, they hired a team of scientists from Harvard University to look into their curious worker mortality rate.
What they found was a factory thick with radium dust filled with glow-in-the-dark employees. Lirerally. The dial-painters were all coated with UnDark dust and in the dark the glowed like ghosts.The investigation concluded that the deaths were connected to the factory work, but U.S. Radium refused to believe it, and buried the report.
Around this time the inventor of UnDark succumbed to aplastic anemia from radium poisoning.
Some of the Radium Girls filed a lawsuit, which resulted in a very public trial which ended in a settlement that ensured they’d be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Which, of course, was not a very long time. They were all dead within a few years.
If you visit the graveyard where many of the Radium Girls were buried, be sure to take a Geiger counter. The corpses of the Radium Girls still emit a metaphorical glow.
Source: Life in the Undark
Maybe one of the strangest uses for radium in the home market was the Radiendocrinator. This was another one of those designed to help men who needed a little extra boost in their manly bits.
Not to be confused with the radioactive “bougies” which were wax-covered radium rods meant to be shoved up the urethra (you can’t make this stuff up), or the supportive cup lined with fabric woven with the goodness of radium in the threads, the Radiendocrinator a provided you with a stack of radioactive cards and an adaptor that was worn “like any ‘athletic strap.'”
Sleeping every night with radium pressed against your gonads was supposedly a sure way to reinject that lost vigor into your days. Its inventor, a regular user of the device, died of bladder cancer. Go figure.
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