Silver Threads

a knitting blog with occasional side trips

Wool gone bad

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I’m reading Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, and as you can tell from the subtitle, the focus is more on the history of elements’ discoveries and uses than the chemistry involved. In the section on radium, Aldersey-Williams not only talks about Marie Curie, but also describes how radium was promoted as a cure-all (he likens it to anti-oxidants nowadays). Companies added it to all sorts of unlikely products, including knitting wool:

Oradium wool for babies was ‘endowed with a physico-chemical treatment of remarkable power: radioactivity’: ‘Everybody knows the extraordinary effects of organic stimulation of cellular excitation passed on by radium…Wool so treated combines the standard advantages of the textile with undeniable hygienic value. To knit Baby’s layette, children’s woollen garments, your underclothes and your pullover, use LAINE ORADIUM.’

(pp. 166-167)

You know, it’s a miracle the human race makes it from one generation to the next.

(Curious, I Googled “laine oradium,” and found some photos of the advertisements on this blog along with a photo of a sister product, LE COTON RADIUM (radium cotton). They’re towards the bottom of the post, but even if you don’t speak French, you can enjoy the other pictures of radium-saturated products as you scroll down. Another source claims the ad is from 1934, well after radium’s dangers were known—sheesh!)

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8 thoughts on “Wool gone bad

  1. May I suggest the book, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. Really interesting read and beautiful format. All that glow in the dark stuff … pretty crazy.

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  2. ” it’s a miracle the human race makes it from one generation to the next.” So true ! I can’t believe it’s been spread everywhere… we worry a lot about the cancers, and what can cause them, but maybe that’s an explanation. Funny fact, I live a mile away from a house where the Curie lived, the new owner didn’t know about it, but found out all the plants were dying in a certain room, and they found out it’s still radioactive and locked it up.. The Curie lab is now in the yard of a university and still radioactive… quite scary I must say.

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    • The author of this book writes about how one of Marie Curie’s labs was closed in 1958 because it was too radioactive to use, but was then reopened in 1995 as a museum. Tourists probably wouldn’t be there long enough to be in any real danger, but it still sounds risky.

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  3. A reblogué ceci sur Agothtale – DIY and commented:
    Miam, du fil au radium…

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  4. Ai yi yi! Babies and radium! But it’s not quite true that everybody knew radium was dangerous in 1934. My father (born in Nebraska in 1927) remembers the shoe stores of his youth, which had state-of-the-art — and undoubtedly leaky — machines for X-raying your feet … to determine your shoe size, I guess. Not only the customers but especially the store employees got regular doses of radioactivity. As you say, it is amazing anyone from that era lived to pass on their genes.

    I love your headline: “Wool gone bad.” Perfect.

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    • Yeah, I bet a nifty X-ray machine would lure customers in, even if a Brannock Device (my new vocabulary term for the day!) would be faster to use (and they were still pretty new in the 1930s themselves). I was getting the date from a further quote from the book (p. 168): “It was abundantly clear by the 1930s that radium was a serious danger to health. The case of the New Jersey ‘radium girls’, who painted the dials on luminous watches, had seen to that. In 1925, one of these women sued her employer, the US Radium Corporation, for damage to her health. She and her colleagues were in the habit of using their lips to put a fine point on the brushes they used. In the end, at least fifteen workers died suffering extreme symptoms of anaemia and decay of the tissue in the jaw.”

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