When radium was a beauty product


A mega-post on the Vintage Ads LJ group rounds up ads from the 1920s and 30s for products that were "enhanced" with radium, then believed to be a great way of improving your health and appearance. Missing from the set: delicious radium butter and radium suppositories.

Radium and You

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  1. There wasn’t actual radium in a lot of these products — radium was so popular & fashionable at the turn of the century that it was just a snazzy thing to throw into brand names.  However, some of them did have small amounts of radioactivity …

  2. Radiation was all the rage, for a while…my dad remembers x-ray units installed in shoe stores: you’d stick your foot in and take a peek at your bones.  Kids loved playing with them…meanwhile, my mom received radiation treatments when she was young—for acne.  It got rid of her acne, all right….a few decades later she developed thyroid cancer, then breast cancer, and finally, 60 years after her acne cure, acute leukemia.

  3. A clear demonstration of why corporations need less regulation.  See?  Very few people ingest radium today!  THE MARKET HAS SPOKEN.

    And all it took was thousands of horrible deaths.

    (Good article, BTW, Romeo)

  4. In case you were wondering why grandma passed of leukemia in her late 40s. 
    (edit: no offense mamayama, mine too)

  5. Has anyone ever tried to determine how many people were killed by these companies? It seems like they must have given at least tens of thousands of people cancer. Were any of them ever prosecuted or sued?

    1. It’s not as if it was actually illegal to use radium as an ingredient at the time.  Legislation regulating industrial products was still in its infancy then.   It was the radium example that helped lead to tougher laws.

      1. Regardless of whether it was illegal to use radium as an ingredient, it was illegal to kill people (even if by accident). I don’t know much about the history of regulation regarding things like this, but even in the absence of specific regulation there is still a straightforward case of person A causing harm to person B. I’m just wondering if anyone ever figured out how many person B’s there were and/or tried to hold the person A’s accountable.

        1. Regardless of whether it was illegal to use radium as an ingredient, it was illegal to kill people (even if by accident).

          It’s not illegal to kill people by accident if you have no way of knowing that what you’re doing is likely to hurt someone. If the manufacturers of this product knew about the dangers of radiation and sold it anyway then they could be criminally negligent, but scientific knowledge on the topic was pretty scant at the time. The foremost expert on radiation in the early 20th century was Marie Curie, and even she was so ignorant of its adverse health effects that she ended up dying of long-term radiation poisoning.

          1. You should read Romeo’s article.  It shows just how hard the companies struggled to “not-know” it’s dangerous, up to and including attempting to delay a trial until the defendants died, and insisting that an unofficial spokesperson’s jaw rotted off for unrelated reasons.

            And I believe that if you kill someone out of ignorance they call that manslaughter. It’s always illegal to kill people. That’s why you can’t run over pedestrians (even if you didn’t intend to do so).

          2. I agree that by the end of the Radium craze those companies should have known better and were probably criminally negligent. When the products first went on the market, probably not. Same deal as tobacco: 17th century farmers who sold the stuff don’t really deserve as much blame for lung cancer deaths as late-20th century marketing agencies.

            It’s always illegal to kill people. That’s why you can’t run over pedestrians (even if you didn’t intend to do so).

            Wrong. If someone suddenly jumps in front of your truck on the highway or you accidentally back over someone who was sleeping under your car without your knowledge then you’re probably in the clear from a legal perspective. It only becomes “manslaughter” when either criminal intent or serious negligence is involved.

          3. Emphasis on “probably.”  You shouldn’t “Wrong” someone and then use “probably.”  Because you would definitely have to defend yourself in court.

          4. The “wrong” was for the “it’s always illegal to kill people” part. That statement is factually incorrect: it’s only illegal when criminal intent or serious negligence is involved. You can, indeed, kill people by accident without breaking any laws whatsoever OR having to defend yourself in court.

  6. Early glow in the dark watches had a radium solution painted onto the numbers. The girls who did this would form the brush with their tongues.

  7. Wow! We were crazy back then. I wonder what our future selves will look back at our age and say about the crazy things they did in the noughties.

    “You mean they held these radio transmitters right up against their heads? – They must’ve been nuts to think that wouldn’t be bad for them”

    Just a thought – maybe not cell phones but you can bet there’ll be something equivalent to the things that we now look back on and ridicule.

  8. The big selling point of the product shown above is an appeal to authority: the text claims proudly that the product was created using the formula of Dr. Curie….no, not Marie — her husband Alfred.

    edited: duh…of course you’re right, Brainspore.

    1. Not even that. Marie’s husband was Pierre, who actually was an authority on the subject of radiation (insomuch as such a thing existed) until his death in 1906. I think the “Dr. Alfred Curie” was either someone brought on board for the authority people associated with the Curie name or a pure marketing invention.

  9. My grandmother, a Brooklyn flapper, underwent radiation treatment for acne too! Fortunately she lived into her 90’s, but it did affect her thyroid.

  10. It’s not illegal to kill people by accident if you have no way of knowing that what you’re doing is likely to hurt someone. If the manufacturers of this product knew about the dangers of radiation and sold it anyway then they could be criminally negligent, but scientific knowledge on the topic was pretty scant at the time. 

    Thank you for this, brainspore. I think this is important to keep in mind when judging the people of history (or the people of the present for that matter). It’s not illegal to be wrong, even if it hurts a bunch of people. That’s why so much effort is spent to prove, in class actions for example, that the offending parties either knew the consequences of their actions or should have known the consequences of their actions had they been doing their jobs. 

      1. trust me, they knew. they weren’t morons

        Madame Curie wasn’t a moron either. They may have known by the time those products were taken off the market but in the early part of the 20th century even the best minds in the scientific community didn’t understand the long-term health risks of radiation exposure.

        1. Many on the inside suspected, but talk of it being dangerous rang as hollow as warnings about EM emissions from cell phones, or the dangers of overarmed law-enforcement, does today.

  11. How silly! Now we are much wiser when it comes to beauty, and inject ourselves with botulinum toxin.

    1. No doubt. When I was in college (c.1992) my toxicology lab (a class, not my job then) was sent, by some Gov’t agency, some botox that had been recovered from eastern european espionage agencies (or so we were told), and was being disposed of as a teaching and research resource.

      The protocols for handling it were non-trivial, it was stored in a secured, guarded, area, and the amounts we used were already diluted to the low ppm range.

      Now, 20 free market years later, 10 of which were POST 9/11, quantities of botox sufficient to kill thousands if put in the water, are kept in unguarded and sleepy suburban mini-mall demitologist and outpatient rhinoplasty offices from coast to coast.

      Not that it’s the MOST POTENT TOXIN KNOWN or anything.

  12. It’s possible that tougher regulation would have made use of this obviously healthy substance (endorsed by the very latest research) compulsory.

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