X-Rays and Radium in Product Advertising:
Or Does Your Collectible Glow in the Dark?
By Michael R. Reilly, June 1996
Last Revised 04/20/2010
Within a few years of Rutherford's discovery of x-rays in 1895, Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie's discoveries of radioactivity, x-rays and the new element, radium, quickly became an obsession among the scientific world and the general public. Led by Thomas Edison's early developments in x-ray fluoroscopes and its mass production in kit form, the world soon came to regard x-rays and radioactive materials as curiosities and toy-like.
Early proclaimed uses of x-ray include transmuting worthless metals into gold, curing criminal behavior and improving learning by bombarding the human brain with x-rays. Radium, unlike x-rays, could be seen and it took on an illuminescent appearance in the dark, intriguing many entrepreneurs into developing all sorts of quackery and gadgets for the unenlightened public.
Patent medicines developed with radium as an ingredient were touted as cures for nearly every disease, such as arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, and blindness. The charlatan especially worked his magic with it, from wearing radioactive belts for healing, to a device called the Radium Ear , a hearing aid fitted with the ingredient, Hearium. Radioactive toothpastes for cleaner teeth and improved digestion to face creams to lighten the complexion were other clever products of questionable practicality and safety. An English gentleman (?), Frederick Godfrey, advertised a radioactive hair tonic, while in Germany a company made a candy bar laced with radium and sold as a "rejuvenator". A company in Denver was selling a radium-based contraceptive jelly as late as 1953. A brand of contraceptive condoms called Radium can be found in a small rectangular hinged lidded tin. Could Radiol Ointment, a pimple salve, found in a small tin contain radium?
One of the more popular concoctions was "liquid sunshine" or radium water that was marketed as a tonic. A New York company claimed to supply over 150,000 customers with its product. Some people were lucky (and also defrauded) for certain tonics didn't contain any radium at all like Radol. Others weren't so fortunate. Radithor was so radioactive that a number of drinkers died from radium poisoning. Hundreds and hundreds of other individuals made their own radium tonics by filtering ordinary water through radium-impregnated crocks. An example might be the Radium Ore Revigator Patd 7-16-12, Trademark, The Radium Ore Revigator Company, 280 California St., San Francisco, Cal. This cream colored crock, with blue lettering stands 12 inches high, was made from 1912-1915. There were instructions on the sides on how to use it.
The radium craze also extended to visiting old uranium mines to breathe in "nature's own remedy" and adding radium to the mud baths at many popular resorts, including several in the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Several years ago radon gas levels were found in high proportions in a number of older buildings that led to almost a mass hysteria about protecting your family from it. These older buildings, in some cases, were found to be these very same resort spa locations, and the mud baths had been simply boarded or cemented over.
Perhaps after your mud bath, you and several close friends went to the local speakeasy during Prohibition for some entertainment. The speakeasy was usually dimly lit so not to draw attention to the establishment. In order to see your drink, the olive in your martini may have been dipped in radium salts or the rim of the glass coated with it as salt on a margarita glass is. The female visitors may have painted their lips or face with a radium-laced cosmetic or the gentleman applied a radium hair tonic or cream/powder to his hair. All of these produced eerie glow in the dark objects of amusement for the patrons.
Orange was a color hard to come by naturally so uranium or radium was applied to the materials of certain brands of tableware to produce not only orange but other festive colors as well.
If you're a collector of wrist watches, many early ones had the numerals on the dial face painted on with radium-laced paints to enable the buyer to tell the time in the dark. It's estimated that nearly 1/4 of all U.S. military men in W.W.I wore them. The military used radium paint on many things, especially in aircraft. The pilots sat in cockpits filled with gauges softly glowing of radium. So did the bombardier, peering intently through his instruments to place some other lethal device on its target.
Some other early thoughts or uses were to paint bicycles with radium paint to be seen in the dark. One man thought that painting a room with the paint would eliminate the need for kerosene or electric lighting. Another gentleman actually painted pictures using radium paints to produce weird effects when shown in the dark. One farmer wanted to give his chickens feed with radium so that the chickens would lay hard-boiled eggs. Another insisted that fertilizing your fields with radium would improve crop production and produce better tasting foods.
I have few pictures of these products but lack the time to reproduce what I have right now. I would like to hear from readers about other items they know of that had radium as an ingredient and perhaps in the near future a more comprehensive listing with illustrations could be printed in this article.
Bottles by Michael Polak, 1st ed., The Confident Collector, 1994.
Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age by Catherine Caufield, 1st ed., Harper & Row, 1989.
Radiation Safety Training program given by Susan Engelhardt, Madison, WI., to GE Medical System employees, June 1996.
The Encyclopedia of Advertising Tins: Smalls & Samples by David Zimmerman, publisher same, 1994.