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Radium Girls - HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

Radium Girls HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

Watches with luminescent numerals, markers, hands and accents for easy nighttime or underwater reading are all the rage. But to get to where we are today, many lives were impacted and lost. Now, the HSNY honors the difficult journey to light with a scholarship for women watchmakers named for American female heroes

Recently, the Horological Society of New York – America’s oldest watchmaking guild – announced a new scholarship that offers financial aid for watchmaking school to women. With an end-goal to help educate all students wishing to learn watchmaking, the HSYN has led the charge with a host of different scholarships. This one geared for women, though, has so many layers of light to it that it is worth a closer look. 

Dark Times Call For Bright Solutions: HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

HSNY Watchmaking Scholarships © HSNY

To begin with, the scholarship is named for Grace Fryer (the Grace Fryer Scholarship for Female Watchmaking Students), a leader of the cause to fight for the rights of the group of women who, in the 1920’s, painted radium onto watch dials and later died horrible deaths. Referred to as the Radium Girls, these young women worked painting dials in factories in Illinois and New Jersey – regularly licking the tips of their brushes before painting each numeral to ensure a smooth line. Little did they know the steps they were encouraged to take meant that they were ingesting poison with horrifying side effects and even death. It was Grace Fryer, a New Jersey dial painter, who led the long, painstaking fight against the company in an effort to get them to acknowledge that the element was poisonous and to issue compensation for the fallen women. Her fight and their plight on the journey to bringing light to watch dials became a national story.

Dark Times Call For Bright Solutions: HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

Grace Fryer © National Archives, Chicago

Their brave fight not only won the lawsuit against U.S. Radium Corporation, but also - and more importantly – catapulted workplace safety regulations around radioactive materials to new levels. Eventually the factory sites were shut down and new rules were enacted. The last Radium Girl, Mae Keane, had told National Public Radio that she couldn’t stand the gritty taste of the material, refused to lick the brushes, and left after only a few days on the job. Her decision saved her life. She lived to be 107 years old, passing away about eight years ago. Today movies and documentaries have been made about the individual women who suffered greatly. 

Dark Times Call For Bright Solutions: HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

Radium Girls at the United States Radium Corporation circa 1922. Public Domain © HSNY

Since that time -- when scientists knew that ingesting radium was poisonous, but the workers – each of whom was paid about five cents per dial and painted about 200 dials a day – did not know, the watch industry has come a long way. With their story coming to the forefront, American’s were stricken. 

Dark Times Call For Bright Solutions: HSNY Offers Female Watchmaker Scholarship Named For the Leader of the Radium Girls Lawsuit

Charlotte Purcell demonstrates lip-pointing of the paintbrush © Chicago Daily Times, Sun-Times Media

The watch industry began investigating new ways to light up dials. Eventually, Super-LumiNova came into being and offered not only a non-poisonous luminosity, but also gave watch makers a choice of colors. Today, most watch brands prefer Super-LumiNova coating for their glow. Other methods include tritium elements encased in glass tubes and applied to dials for extreme luminosity under water. Just a handful or two of brands turn to this method. By naming the women’s scholarship after Grace Flyer, the HSNY furthers the story of the Radium Girls, acknowledging their plight and offering transparency about one of the darkest times in American watchmaking. It also raises the awareness of the concept of women and watches – a growing segment of our global watch community today. There could not have been a more apt name for this valuable financial aid. Scholarship applications are being accepted until March 1, 2022. 

Lecture 1 Comment(s)

19 February 2022
Jean-Marc Loiseau
N'oublions pas que le super luminova n'est arrivé du japon qu'en 1990 et que les aiguilles lumineuses ainsi que les cadrans ont continué a etre posés dans les montres et les réveils pendant les 60 années séparant le procès américain de l'arrivée de ce produit. surtout en Suisse et en france . aucune thèse, aucune étude n'a été réalisée sur les ouvrières européennes. personnellement, je cherche tous les témoignages et les informations sur cete saleté. Ernest LIPmann se vantait d'avoir demandé directement à marie curie de lui fournir de quoi éclairait ses montres. et A la fin de la première guerre mondiale, c'était "Lip, lip, hourra", mais pour combien de poseuses d'aiguilles abimées et contaminées, aucun chiffre! Jean-marc loiseau chroniqueur horloger.