You hear this argument all the time these days. Everything is made of plastic. It’s never built to last. It breaks when you sneeze on it or drop it once. We all like to think back to the days when things were tougher, better-built, longer-lasting and looked nicer. But while some products were made from wonderfully innocent and safe materials, there are some things that you’ll be glad to know, aren’t made ‘the good old-fashioned way’. Here’s a few of them…

Matches. Around since the 1820s, matches are used for everything from lighting cigarettes and candles to startingcampfires. have you ever noticed that most matches today are all tipped red? Why?

Back in the 19th century, when matches were made by hand, one of the main ingredients in the chemical coating on the match-head was a substance called white phosphorus, a chemical used extensively in explosives and other pyrotecnics. In the 1800s it was also used in matchmaking. However, white phosphorus is a nasty substance. It gives off fumes which were inhaled by the ‘match-girls’, the girls and young women who worked in match-factories in the second half of the 1800s. The fumes caused a condition called ‘Phossy Jaw’. Phossy Jaw started with toothaches…then bone damage…then decay…eventually, your teeth would drop out, your gums would rot away and your bones would start glowing a flourescent green! Phossy Jaw also causes brain damage.

Eventually, match-girls in England went on strike and the less poisonous red phosphorus (which is used today) was introduced. It wasn’t until the first decade or two of the 20th century that red phosphorus started replacing white phosphorus in any large quantities.

Hats: A hat, a proper hat, is a wonderful thing. Warm, stylish, fuzzy, smooth and made of the nicest and most wonderful material ever. Felt! But the way hats are made today is a lot different from how hats used to be made, and it’s that process that gave rise to the term ‘Mad as a Hatter’. Why?

From the 1700s up until the 1940s, the hatmaking process was highly poisonous. This was because it involved using a chemical to remove the fuzzy fur from the pelts of beavers and rabbits (the animal-furs and skins used in hatmaking) to give the characteristic smooth, fuzzy underlayer that is turned into felt. This process was carried out by rubbing the pelts with the chemical solution, then putting them into an oven to dry, then stretching the pelts and then shaving off the excess fur to expose the soft felt underneath. The only problem was the very start of this process-the addition of chemicals. Or specifically, one chemical. Mercury.

As the pelts heat up and dry in the oven the mercury fumes would leech off the hats and hover in the air. Hatmakers would inhale these fumes coming out of the ovens and get mercury all over their hands during the rest of the hatmaking process. Continued exposure to mercury causes severe brain-damage. It also causes more visible symptoms such as loss of teeth, fingernails, itching and skin-peeling. Mental damage includes insomnia and memory-loss. In the United States, the use of mercury in the hatmaking industry didn’t finally end until December of 1941.

Glow-in-the-Dark Watch-Dials:  I remember when I was a kid, one of the coolest things ever was having a watch that glowed in the dark. I remember laying in bed watching the glowing dashes on the watch-face and the disembodied point of the second hand ticking slooowly around in a…boring and mindnumbing circle that would eventually send me to sleep. Forget counting sheep. Buy a luminous watch and stare at in the dark until you drop off.

Glow-in-the-dark watches were popular for decades. They were especially popular during wartime when pilots in dark airplane cockpits could read their watches more easily, or soldiers on pre-dawn attacks or nighttime black-ops could check the time without having to expose a light. But how do they make watches glow in the dark?  Radium!

As the name suggests, radium is a radioactive chemical element. From the 1900s up to the 1960s it was commonly used in radium paint, which would cause anything that it coated to glow in the dark…specifically watch dials and hands. But watch hands and dials are tiny. How do you paint them with glow-in-the-dark paint? With really tiny paintbrushes. But to get the precise tips that the brushes required, factory-girls would have to lick the brushheads to produce the needlepoint tips necessary to carry out such eye-bending work. Continual licking of the paintbrush tips (and, of course, the paint itself) caused radium poisoning.

Attention about radium poisoning came about in 1917 when a group of girls working at a watch-factory took their employer to court, suing for damages caused by the radium paint (which they had been told was harmless). It took years of fighting, but eventually safety measures were brought in and precautions were introduced to make the practice of radium dial painting much safer. Radium continued to be used until the 1960s when it was replaced with a safer alternative. Symptoms of radium poisoning or radiation sickness include anemia and lack of bone density (and therefore, an increase in fractures).

Lead Crystal: If you’re an appreciator of fine alcohol or if grandma just gifted you the antique decanter set that’s been in the family for five generations…you might want to stop reading now.

Lead crystal, that pretty, glassy material that sparkles in the light, has been around for centuries. It’s frequently used to make decorative glass objects such as bowls, drinking glasses and alcohol decanters. The addition of lead to glass makes it more glittery and easier to mould and shape, however, the presence of lead in the glass, which makes lead crystal, also makes the glass poisonous.

Alcoholic beverages which are normally stored in lead crystal decanters can leech the lead out of the glass causing the wine or brandy that’s in contact with the crystal to become highly and dangerously impregnated with lead. Continued use over several decades can cause lead poisoning to people who drink from these decanters.

Paint: Everyone hates the smell of housepaint and once you’ve smelt it, you can never forget it. But you can be glad that these days, all we have to worry about are the smells. Back in the old days, as I’m sure countless of public health announcements have told you, commercially-available paint used to contain lead. Why?

The addition of lead to paint has various benefits. To begin with, it makes the paint dry faster. It’s also used as a pigment (specifically lead carbonate, which is used to make brilliant, cloud-white paint) and causes the paint to last longer. On the downside, lead-poisoning is a serious problem.

Lead poisoning can affect almost the entire body. It causes insomnia, memory loss, delirium, muscle weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite and constipation (for which the antimony pill might help!).

So the next time you go antiquing, you might want to do a bit more research about what you’re hoping to buy, and pay more attention to the fine print.

Useful information on poisons may be found in the book “The Elements of Murder (A History of Poison)” by John Emsley.   Ref:


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