Hot Town: Los Angeles in the 'Radium Age'

A phosphorescent glow -- like the full moon through high, thin clouds -- illuminated early 20th century America with the promise of youth and beauty and health. The glow came from the Curies -- from up-to-the-minute France -- where the Curies isolated radioactive radium from uranium ore in 1898.

Radioluminous paint on watch faces and on signs, fabric, buttons, and toys dispelled the dark. Radium salts in glass tubes inserted into tumors had some beneficial health effects. Radiation was new, potent, and scientific. America had to have more of it.

Los Angeles did, too. At the turn of the 20th century, radium in various form turned up in medical devices in the city's hospitals and doctor's offices to treat everything from eczemas to cancers. The promise of better health (and better looks) was irresistible.

If happiness through radiation was the sales pitch, Los Angeles was a market willing to buy radium shoe polish, radium hand cream, and radium pills (even if none of them actually contained any of the rare element).

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No tie-in was too remote. Radium Sulphur Springs in Colegrove (Hollywood before it was named Hollywood) enthused about the healthy warmth of its sulfur, iron, and soda laden water: "Oh! How it Sparkles. Oh! How it Foams! It Chases a Microbe Wherever it Roams." But the management also promised that the water had something more. It was "radio-active," presumably from the radon gas dissolving into the spring.

Between 1908 and 1927 the spring's medical director Dr. G.P. Gehring placed 245 display advertisements in the Los Angeles Times offering radioactive "liquid sunshine" for the cure of a long list of conditions ranging from locomotor ataxia to "female troubles."

Liquid Sunshine
| Photo: Courtesy of Noirish LA

Radium Sulphur Springs may have sparkled and foamed like champagne, but it probably didn't offer the health seeker much beyond a slight increase in the background level of radiation. To be effective, the medical hucksters said, therapeutic radioactivity needed to be in every glass of water you drank.

And if you couldn't come to the water (at five cents for the streetcar ride), the water could come to you. The usual form was an "earthenware or stoneware cistern with radioactive material inclusions in the fabric of the vessel, into which may also be placed a radioactive core, most often called an 'emanator' ... made from a mixture of concrete and a radioactive material such as uranium ore. A vessel was filled with water, the contents allowed to stand for 24 hours, then consumed. By the addition of an activator such as zinc sulphide, the water could also be made to glow." (From "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off" - The changing role of radioactivity in the 20th century by Robert Maxwell, University of Sydney)

Revigator Radium Water Dispenser
| Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

The locally-made Revigator radioactive water crock was manufactured beginning in 1912-1913. "Fill jar every night," went the urgent advertising copy in the Los Angeles Examiner. "Drink freely . . . when thirsty and upon arising and retiring, average six or more glasses daily."

Other companies in Los Angeles assembled similar jugs from parts made with uranium. The Radium Products Laboratories at 423 N. Western Avenue supplied "radium ore" (granulated uranium), along with its own brand of "radio-active water" and something ominously called "radiomilk."

Los Angeles drugstores offered radium suppositories, radium pads and belts, and radium beauty creams. (Radium condoms were sold under the counter.)

It's not possible to calculate the human cost of the "Radium Age" in Los Angeles. It lasted from at least as early as 1906 until the mid-1930s, during an era when conventional medicine had little offer for chronic suffering and almost nothing beyond the scalpel for cancer. The health claims for radium water were pure snake oil, but at least, no one was reported dead from drinking "radiomilk."

Hope and desperation had been reasons for coming to Los Angeles since the 1880s, when some boosters feared the city might become the nation's sanitarium. Radium's vital glow - like the sheen of the oranges on packing labels - promised another form of healing for sick bodies and sick hearts.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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