The pitiful victims live in a protracted hell

Posted by | September 25, 2017

Before the organization of the Diamond Match Company in 1867, there were in existence throughout the United States over thirty match factories, employing about 4,000 people, and several of those were found in Kentucky and West Virginia. The typical match factory was very small, often simply the size of a medium sized house, and consisted of anywhere between one and a dozen workers, often children, making matches entirely by hand in cramped and poorly ventilated conditions and for a very small wage. Soon after the turn of the twentieth century public concern nationwide was aroused over the health menace created by the manufacture of matches from white phosphorus.

A case of phossy jaw

“The fumes of this poison or phosphorus cause a disease known as ‘phossy jaw,’ in which the bones of the jaws decay and disappear altogether, and the pitiful victims live in a protracted hell of loathsome, hideous disease. This directly concerns every home where there is a baby, and every woman who has a heart for the thousands of women employed at the risk of this terrible disease.”
Publ. by American Women’s League, 1911

Bowing to public pressure, the US Bureau of Labor sought out a Chicago physician named Alice Hamilton to investigate this and other occupational hazards, especially in the “dusty trades,” and published the results of her studies.

“It seems that in the course of a study of wages of women and children made by the Bureau of Labor, under Carroll Wright, investigators came across cases of phossy jaw in women match workers in the South,” said Hamilton. “This impelled Wright to institute an investigation in other match centers. [John] Andrews was asked to carry it out and did so, with a result most disconcerting to American optimism. Some of the cases he discovered were quite as severe as the worst reported in European literature—the loss of jawbones, of an eye, sometimes death from blood poisoning.

“All this I had learned, but I had been assured by medical men, who claimed to know, that there was no phossy jaw in the United States because American match factories were so scrupulously clean. Then in 1908 John Andrews came to Hull House and showed me the report of his investigation of American match factories and his discovery of more than 150 cases of phossy jaw.”

Finally in 1910, the Diamond Match Company patented the first nonpoisonous match in the U.S., which used a safe chemical called sesquisulfide of phophorous.

President William H. Taft publicly asked Diamond Match to release their patent for the good of mankind. They did on January 28, 1911, and Congress promptly placed such a high tax on matches made with white phosphorous that they were priced out of the market. Phossy jaw was history.


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