And will the match trade die?
And will the match trade die?
Then thirty thousand working girls
Will know the reason why.
Daily News (25 April 1871)
The humble match, a remarkably simple invention, and as I’m sure many of you will testify, a most convenient and useful household item, with your oil and gas lamps, candles and tobacco pipes all demanding speedy ignition. We’re certainly beyond the days of breaking out the tinder box, and the Lucifer match was ready to take its place, known for its ability to strike anywhere, any time – even when not required, setting fire to houses, barns, clothing. Like I said, versatile.
Yet, like so many wonders of the world that we rely upon, the history of the simple matchstick is a sad and tragic narrative for those who toiled to create them. Like many professions, the factory conditions in which these everyday items were produced stand as testament to human misery and suffering. The primary manufacturer of the then known Lucifer match was Bryant and May, and the popularity of these tiny flammable sticks made the owners extremely rich – and the workers extremely ill. Conditions alone; twelve-hour work days (at least), few if any breaks and stringently exacting fines for any sort of misdemeanor; this was the status quo between the mid to late 1800’s. The prevailing attitude is described in this account from activist Annie Besant:
‘One girl was fined 1s. for letting the web twist round a machine in the endeavor to save her fingers from being cut, and was sharply told to take care of the machine, “never mind your fingers”.’
But it was the key chemical that caused the glorious little flame, that beacon in the dark – white phosphorous, that was the most prevalent toxic injury inflicted upon the laborers. White phosphorous, first discovered as a component of human urine, was about as poisonous a chemical as could be found in a 19th century workplace. A waxy substance into which the spindles of wood were dipped to form the matches themselves, it was frequently used as a means of suicide, and children who sucked or chewed on the ends of matches died quickly, accounting for 50% of all accidental deaths relating to the substance. It was also an insecticide and a rodent killer, and later used in ammunition.
Conditions at the Bryant and May factory, known to some as the Lucifer factory, were so deplorable that white phosphorous poisoning was rife throughout the entire production chain. Different classes of workers (known as ‘boxers’, ‘dippers’ or ‘mixers’), almost always young women, were at varying risk depending on the number of years they had labored above the rising fumes and dust.
Charles Dickens, commentator on many social circumstances of the time,, describes the chemical in his journal Household Words:
‘[Annie Brown] could smell the phosphorus at ﬁrst, but soon grew used to it. At night, she could see that her clothes were glowing on the chair where she had put them; her hands and arms were glowing also.’
The decaying-disease synonymous with match-making at the time was called phossy jaw, also ‘phosphorous necrosis’ as well as the sinister moniker ‘lucifer disease’. It was a ruthlessly fatal and degenerative bone ailment that gradually ate away at the lower cranial structure and ultimately poisoned the victim.
There are theories abound as to why phosphorous poisoning first afflicted the jaw, but it appears most likely that it was due to consumption with food. The Bryant and May factory, like many small workhouses and also the domiciles of workers were much work was done (known as the ‘cottage industry’) lacked separate kitchen or canteen areas, resulting in foodstuffs being stored on or around the production line, particles of the phosphorous chemical settling on the comestibles throughout the day. Barely having time eat, let alone scrub the deadly substance from their skin, workers would consume the toxin along with their meals and the poison would be absorbed through the small holes and cavities of the gum region.
Symptoms were horrific – first toothache, then swelling, followed by abscesses that resulted in the teeth rotting out of the jaw bone, the structure gradually melting away, causing small pieces of bone to be ejected through the resulting gaps. The skin would start to fall apart, and putrid pus would eject from the spreading apertures, causing a stench so obnoxious that those nearby would be instantly repelled. Due to the fluorescent effects of the chemical, it was reported that the collapsing bone and skin would glow – it was said that on some nights, it was possible to see pools of vomit around the entrance to the factory glowing faintly in the dark. Fatalities were common, in the region of 20% of sufferers died horribly.
Treatment was harsh – full removal of the lower jaw and a lifetime of soft foods, or else you could expect horrendous brain damage, excruciating pain, swift organ failure and obviously, death. As per enlightened company policy, discovery of the symptoms led to mandatory tooth pulling – refusal resulted in dismissal. From the Journal Freedom in 1888:
‘Directly a woman appeared with a swollen face, the foreman ordered her to have her teeth drawn on pain of dismissal. One pregnant women refused, fearing miscarriage from the shock. She was instantly turned adrift.’
Disfigurement was standard, social exclusion common, with the foul-smelling odor and gradually failing mental faculties resulted in exile of the victim from urban areas to peripheral shanty towns, not unlike leper colonies of old.
It wasn’t until the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 that many of the conditions were brought to light (if you’ll forgive the pun). The feminist and social reformer Annie Besant campaigned tirelessly with the laborers, petitioning for not only improved working conditions, rest breaks, and better pay but also for the use of red phosphorous in match-making, a more expensive but non-poisonous variant of the deadly manufacturing chemical. It wouldn’t be until 1906 that the practice of using white phosphorous would stop but not before having exacting a tragic toll in between.
(This article was first published on March 15th, 2015 on The Pandora Society. Sources available upon request)