We Used to Put Radium in Coffee

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Some of the fascinating things we did with the radioactive element, including using it as a "wonderful" nightlight, since it "glows with a weird light in a dark room."

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Radium was discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898. In 1903, the Royal Academy of Sciences awarded Marie and Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, making Marie the first woman to win the prize. Later, in 1911, she would win her second Nobel for isolating radium, discovering another element (polonium), and for her research into the new phenomenon of radioactivity, a word she coined herself.

By 1910, radium was manufactured synthetically in the U.S. But before the effects of radiation exposure were well understood, radium ended up in a lot of crazy places for its purported magical healing properties and its glow-in-the-dark novelty.


In Chocolate

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Food products containing radium, like the Radium Schokolade chocolate bar manufactured by Burk & Braun and Hippman-Blach bakery's Radium Bread, made with radium water, were popular overseas until they were discontinued in 1936.


In Toys and Nightlights

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The Radiumscope, a toy sold as late as 1942, offered a glimpse of radium in action. Noting radium's famed luminescence, the ad also mentions that the radiumscope could double as a "wonderful" nightlight, since it "glows with a weird light in a dark room."


In Water

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Radium water crocks like the Revigator stored a gallon of water inside a radium-laced bucket; drinking the water would cure any number of ailments, from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles.


In Toothpaste

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Toothpaste containing both radium and thorium was sold by a man named Dr. Alfred Curie, who was not related to Marie or Pierre but didn't miss an opportunity to capitalize on their name.


In Cosmetics

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Alfred Curie's product line didn't end with dental care, though. He also manufactured the extremely popular Tho-Radia brand of cosmetics, which included powders and creams that promised to rejuvenate and brighten the skin.


In Heating Pads and Suppositories

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Early 20th-century doctors also jumped onto the radioactive bandwagon with both feet, producing suppositories, heating pads and radioactive coins (used to "charge" small amounts of water), all intended to treat rheumatism, weakness, malaise and just about any health complaint for which a fast and magical cure was needed.


In the Treatment of Impotence

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Before the days of Viagra and Cialis, treatment for impotence took the form of radioactive "bougies" - wax rods inserted into the urethra - and even athletic supporters containing a layer of radium-impregnated fabric. A popular alternate treatment called the Radioendocrinator was a booklet that contained a number of cards coated in radium, which were worn inside the undergarments at night. (The Radioendocrinator's inventor died of bladder cancer in 1949.)


In Health Spas

Radium health spas took off in the 20s and 30s, where women and men alike could stop in for a long relaxing soak in radium mud, rinse with radium water and leave soft and glowing, thanks to a thorough application of radium cream. Radium mines and caves also doubled as "healing rooms," if patrons were willing to travel. At least one radium spa is still in operation in the United States, as are a few in Japan in Europe.


In Clocks and Watches

Between 1917 and 1926, during the height of radium's heyday, the U.S. Radium Corporation employed more than a hundred workers (mostly women) to paint watch and clock faces with their patented Undark luminous paint. As many as 70 women were hired to mix the Undark paint, comprised of glue, water and radium powder. Workers were taught to shape paintbrushes with their mouths to maintain a fine point, and some used the material to paint their nails and teeth. While U.S. Radium's labor force were all but encouraged to ingest the dangerous mixture, management and research scientists who were aware of the danger carefully avoided any exposure themselves.

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Five Radium Girls sued U.S. Radium in a case that initiated labor safety standards and workers' rights. There are no records of how many of U.S. Radium's employees suffered from anemia, inexplicable bone fractures, bleeding gums and eventually, necrosis of the jaw. Though many of the factory's workers became sick, cases of death by radiation sickness were initially attributed to syphilis. (It's believed that this was an attempt to smear the girls' reputations, and that medical investigators hired by U.S. Radium were paid to withhold their findings.)

The Radium Girls' case was settled in 1928, putting a swift end to shaping paintbrushes with the mouth and open containers of radium paint. Though radium was still used in clocks until the 1960s, new cases of acute radiation syndrome in dial painters came to a screeching halt, and soon after, so did the popularity of radium-containing products and toys. The former U.S. Radium manufacturing plant is now a Superfund site.



A version of this post originally appeared on Mental Floss, an Atlantic partner site.

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Adrienne Crezo is a writer based in Oklahoma.

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