English Factory Laborers Were Forced To Work With Toxic Chemicals Until Their Faces Became Deformed

English Factory Laborers Were Forced To Work With Toxic Chemicals Until Their Faces Became Deformed
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English Factory Laborers Were Forced To Work With Toxic Chemicals Until Their Faces Became Deformed 

During the late 19th century, the East End of London was home to several factories that produced matches. Men, women, and children worked long hours for very little money, dipping matchsticks into phosphorus, unaware of the fumes they were breathing in and the toxins that were destroying their bodies.

“Phossy jaw” was the most common physical side-effect of working as a matchstick worker, a condition that led to the deterioration of one’s jaw to the point of utter deformity.

A precursor to later factory-based occupational diseases like those endured by the Radium Girls and an early example that using chemicals without a full understanding of their consequences can have disastrous consequences, the resulting 1888 Matchstick Girls strike set a path for increased workers’ rights and improved workplace conditions. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of pain and suffering along that path. 

The Bryant & May Factory In London Was A Classic Industrial Revolution Factory

Bryant & May were leaders in the matchstick industry, innovating and producing at the expense of their workers. Matchstick production was competitive, and there were several factories located in London, Birmingham, and Liverpool. Out of the over 4,000 matchstick workers in England, Bryant & May employed more than 2,000 people, mostly young girls and women between the ages of 14 and 18, during the 19th century.

Factories in the Industrial Revolution were tightly packed, dirty, and often dangerous buildings run by strict and greedy owners looking to increase their profits as much as possible – no matter the cost. The Bryant & May factory was no different. Descriptions of the factory indicate it was akin to a “prison-house.” The matchmaking process was done under one roof, and “Lucifer” matches, as they were known, found great popularity as an alternative to flint-and-steel.

By dipping small pieces of wood into a chemical compound of white or yellow phosphorus, consumers could light their lanterns, fireplaces, and any other fire they wished to start with newfound ease. Putting all of the workers into one place cut down overhead costs and made for a more efficient system of mass production.

Workers Were Paid Poorly For 12- To 14-Hour Days

In order to increase profits, factories paid low wages for long hours of work. There was no shortage of labor, and factories could take advantage of this, paying as little as necessary.  Matchstick workers, because most of them were women, made even less than their male counterparts as they toiled from 6 am to 6 pm daily. Many women made less than the equivalent of 10 cents an hour and were expected to pay for their housing, food, and clothing with that money. 

Notably, sometimes women worked from home to put together matchstick boxes, as well. The residue from the phosphorus was still present on the materials they took into their homes.

In Addition To Low Wages, Factory Workers Were Fined For Sitting Down Or Talking

The Bryant & May factory took money out of the wages they paid their workers for infractions such as a messy work-station or matches that caught fire during a shift. The fines could also be levied for sitting down on the job – because the women were expected to stand all day – for talking, or for being late.  If a worker was late, she has docked half-a-day’s wages. The factory owners took liberties with wages in other ways. One example at the Bryant & May factory included deducting from each girl’s wage to pay for a statue to honor Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone in East London. 

Money aside, the women were also subjected to physical abuse and bodily harm in what was termed “white slavery” by Annie Besant in 1888. 

Inhaling Phosphorus Fumes Led To Tooth And Jaw Deterioration, And This Was An Everyday Job Hazard

Workers at the Bryant & May factory, as well as other matchstick producing facilities, experienced face swelling and tooth pain because of the phosphorus fumes they inhaled. Teeth often rotted and fell out, leaving the jaw exposed and deterioration to continue leading to what was called “phossy jaw.” The faces of those affected glowed in the dark.

Bryant & May’s dentist stated that the women who were experiencing these symptoms were older and of a lower social class which, according to them, explained their deteriorating teeth. 

Most Women Got Sick Within Five Years Of Beginning Work

Based on the earliest cases of the phossy jaw in Europe, it was determined that women got sick within five years of exposure to white or yellow phosphorus. This was further supported by an argument that only a few women would have been around enough phosphorus to suffer the most serious effects. The poverty, disease, and squalid living conditions in London’s East End created an already unhealthy population and did very little to help workers in the factories.

Even Charles Dickens wrote about the horrors of phosphorous poisoning that the women in the factories were exposed to, remarking that the factory where they worked was in the “unfashionable East” of London.

When The Factory Workers Started Getting Sick, Bryant & May Fired Them

In addition to the struggles of low wages and shoddy working conditions, matchstick girls experienced physical horrors that began to manifest over time. Exposure to phosphorus was known to be dangerous as early as 1838 when in Austria the first case of phossy jaw appeared. Charles Dickens acknowledged it in 1852 in an article for Household Worlds, and medical journals were discussing it during the 1850s and 1860s.

It appears as though Bryant & May were well aware of the consequences of working with phosphorus, as well. Their archives contain reports of women complaining about dental problems, nausea, vomiting, glowing, and other ailments, but Bryant & May continued using phosphorus and took to dismissing anyone that showed signs of its effects. There was no shortage of labor, and those affected could easily be replaced.

Workers Lost Eyes, And Their Faces Rotted Away

Sometimes, in order to stem the effects of phosphorous poisoning, removing the jaw wasn’t enough. Workers reportedly lost eyes and eye sockets, as well as experiencing problems with their throats and rotting facial tissue. Once the rot became widespread, the pus and odor from the wounds increased. The only way to stop the disease from continuing to eat away the face was to remove the jaw. One London surgeon report described one case as follows:

The patient was a 35-year-old matchmaker who presented with great external swelling and in a debilitated state from inability to take solid food. Extending from ear to ear along the line of the jaw was a chain of ulcerated openings, from which there was profuse discharge and through any of which a probe could reach the dead bone. Inside the mouth, the toothless alveolar process was seen bared of soft parts in its whole extent, the bone being rough and brownish-black. The gum gaped widely away from the dead jaw and had receded so as to leave it above the natural level of that bone, a probe could be passed easily either in front or behind the bone toward the sinuses of the neck. Under chloroform, the jaw was removed by dividing it at the symphysis and dragging the two halves out separately.

Organ Failure And Cancer Were Common Results Of Phosphorus Exposure

The osteonecrosis that ate away at a matchstick worker’s jaw was often deadly, but skin cancer was another associated outcome of working with the carcinogenic chemical. In some cases, kidney failure, brain swelling, convulsions, and bleeding lungs were reported.  

If a matchstick worker with phossy jaw or some other related illness didn’t die as a result, she was susceptible to malnutrition and slow death by starvation from the inability to eat solid food. 

According to Dickens, 

Robert Smith is twenty-one years old, and worked six years before he began to suffer; he was a dipper. 
He has now no teeth in his lower jaw, of which a great part is destroyed… He knows of fourteen who have had 
the disease; two of them died.

The 1888 Strike Was A Statement Against Wages And Conditions Alike

Denmark ended the use of phosphorus in the matchmaking process in 1874, but it was unique in that regard. Most countries continued to produce “Lucifer” matches well into the late 19th century despite growing medical knowledge and worker discontent. 

The Matchstick Girls Strike of 1888 was a reaction to the entirety of the conditions at the Bryant & May factory, but it called special attention to the occupational hazards of working with phosphorus. The strike itself was kicked off after Anne Besant’s article on “white slavery” was made public, and on July 1888, 1,500 workers walked out of the factory in protest. Besant helped the women organize into a union, and negotiations took place between the workers and the factory owners. Ultimately, the workers were granted some of their demands, including the end of the fine system and the reinstatement of the women, fired for talking to Besant. 

The Matchstick Girls Strike Didn’t End The Use Of Phosphorus

Despite the gains of the Matchstick Girls in terms of labor and working conditions, the use of phosphorus continued in Britain and in other European countries. The British government had banned eating in the workrooms of matchstick factories in 1864 but only slowly moved to address the larger concerns of phosphorus exposure. This was, in part, because the Bryant & May factory hid the incidences of the phossy jaw and other illnesses. Government regulators were under the impression that the diseases were on the decline. In 1895, however, the Factory Act made it mandatory for factories to report cases of the phossy jaw, but there was still no move to stop the use of phosphorus. It was determined that the risk of foreign matches taking over the market was too dangerous.

British match factories didn’t end the use of phosphorus in producing matches until the beginning of the 20th century. Europe as a whole turned away from white phosphorus, however, and by the end of the first decade of the 1900s, the phossy jaw was almost eliminated


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John Smith has been with Histecho since 2017, A Senior Editor & Writer for Histecho. his work has been featured in outlets such as Scientific American, The Washington Post, NBC News, and Fox News. John grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.