Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Holy Shit, Phossy Jaw!

Phossy Jaw

Did you know that lighters were invented before matches?

It's true! It makes sense when you think about it. Lighters are really no more than an advanced form of flint and tinder with a bit of flammable liquid added to the mix. Matches, on the other hand, are a fairly novel idea. They use a phosphorous coating and frictional heat to create a reaction that produces fire. Pretty neat, huh?

Nowadays, matches are usually tipped with either phosphorus sesquisulfide or red phosphorous. Back in the 19th Century, they used something else. Something called White Phosphorous. Does that name sound familiar? Well, brace your stomach, because here's why:


White Phosphorous bombing
Oh, so it's like a bomb or...

Israeli WP attacks on Gaza
Oh, that does look pretty terrifying, but...

White Phosphorus burns

White Phosphorous is known for it's use as a smoke-producing and incendiary weapon. Meaning it burns shit like hellfire. And it has a nasty tendency to cling stubbornly to human flesh. It can catch just about anything on fire, and being anywhere near it when it burns is guaranteed to ruin your whole goddamn day. It is nasty, it is violent, and it is a clear message from the gods to run in the opposite direction whenever you see it.

Jesus. Okay, Here's a couple of pictures to take our minds off of that gruesome display above:

Happy thoughts.

Happy Thoughts!

Young Brown Poodle

That feels better. Okay, so back to matches. White Phosphorus, in addition to being a key ingredient in the hellfire of Satan's own arsenal, produces a nasty vapor that you really shouldn't breathe in over a long period of time. When you do, as people in matchmaking factories were wont to do in the latter half of the 19th Century, you develop a condition known as Phossy Jaw.

[I considered putting another picture here, but I decided that I've put you through enough gore this week.]

Phossy jaw is also known as "Phosphorus necrosis of the jaw," and is pretty much exactly what it says on the package. For their service in the factories, Victorian-era matchmakers were rewarded with their very own glow-in-the-dark jaw bones! Pretty cool, sure, but said jaw bones were also malformed, abscessed, and smelled very literally like death

Loyal employees were also granted unending anguish as their jaws slowly decomposed on their living faces. Finally, they were given the option of either paying a fee they usually couldn't afford to have a Victorian-era doctor (yikes) remove parts of their jaw (double yikes), or they just plain died of organ failure.

In 1888, a big group of matchgirls collectively bargained their way into saying, "Fuck this shit," and went on strike. For their trouble, they got some awareness. That's it. Nothing concrete, people just started to openly acknowledge the fact that they were willfully imposing a horrifying disease upon thousands of people because they wanted a stick that could light itself on fire.

A lit match
Which, admittedly, is a little bit neat.

Three years later, the Salvation Army, to their credit, became the first match company to use the slightly less efficient (but infinitely safer) red phosphorous in their matchmaking process, and they paid better wages to boot.

The next few decades saw various countries banning the use of white phosphorus in match production and, in the case of the United States, placing a punitive tax on it that made it impractical. An international ban was put in place by Berne Convention in 1906. 

In 1898, Albright and Wilson patented a method of safely producing phosphorus sesquisulfide for the manufacture of matches. They sold the patent to the Diamond Match Company, to whom President William Howard Taft personally wrote a public letter begging them, for the good of humanity, to release the patent. They did, and match production became relatively safe for workers from that point on.
Diamond Match Headline
No, really. That happened.

Next time you light a match, consider all the abscessed, necrotic, excruciatingly painful jaws that litter the history of that flammable little wooden stick you hold.

Holy shit.

1 comment:

  1. "Impose" implies the matchworkers were slaves...