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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Before Serums, Women Had Radium

Made with “ACTUAL RADIUM not ‘Radio-Active Water’”!
A woman receiving a Kemolite mud treatment in 1922 
Image: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images (Getty Images)
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The discovery of radium, in 1898, by scientists Marie Skłodowska Curie and Pierre Curie quickly captured public imagination on a large scale basis. Newspapers in both Western Europe and the United States reported widely on this mysterious new element and its strange properties. It seemed that radium could do anything, that it could solve all of the problems facing humanity at the time. It showed potential as a super medicine, a modern-day panacea, a hope that could cure the most feared diseases of all—cancer and tuberculosis—and found widespread usage in medical treatments.

This public interest, alongside the eventual lowering of costs and the expanding availability of radium, presented manufacturers with a retail opportunity that was taken up with enthusiasm in the 1920s and 1930s. The general public was given a chance to purchase a small part of this wondrous substance in products that claimed to harness the healing and energizing powers of radium. The claims of the manufacturers of these products, which ranged from patent medicines to novelty items such as “radium spectacles,” exploited the murkiness of knowledge and understanding of the element, but all shared the similar promise of miraculous results.

Radium was also hailed as the savior to a particular set of problems facing women, including wrinkles, poor skin, excess hair, and crows-feet. A newly emerging mass-market industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the beauty industry was a serious business that advocated a number of innovative new techniques. For other companies wishing to make a case for their modernity and links with science, radium was an obvious choice for research and development purposes. After all, it was a product of modern science created in a Nobel Prize-winning laboratory.


In the 1920s and 30s the streets of Mayfair were crowded with beauty salons, most of which seem to have offered some kind of radium treatment. Some, like those of Helen Cavendish, had developed from small private rooms to larger salon premises due to the popularity of their products and services. Other names, like Phyllis Earle and Feminix were new ventures: opened to cater to the desires of the modern, beauty hungry, woman. The design of the hairdressing and beauty salon had once been modeled on the private cubicles of department stores. However, by the interwar period, they became almost universally (if space permitted) a space divided into two. The first of these was a reception area, which resembled an upper middle-class parlor, and the second, the workspace where the treatments were carried out. The hairdressing and beauty salon had developed as a new urban pleasure—a space where women could be public but private. Even “parlor” and “salon” are terms explicitly invoking the female spaces within a private residence, implying a solid sense of respectability.

Ad from Vogue, 1919
Ad from Vogue, 1919
Image: Public Domain

The design of the salon spaces was critical—they stressed a sense of luxury and warmth in contrast to the drab life of the majority. But they also designed their premises to appeal to the values of modernism, stressing hygiene, streamlining and cleanliness. These spaces were the height of what it meant to be a modern woman in the interwar years.

An up-to-date salon (and every salon would have strived to be up to date!) would have been a warm and luxurious place. A good salon would have all the mod cons including electric lighting, marble-topped sinks, plenty of hot and cold running water and reclining chairs. The beauty technology on offer included electric curling irons, banks of gas or electric hairdryers, vibrator machines and electric hairbrushes.

The two Phyllis Earle salons (both of which were in London: one at 15 North Audley Street and the other at 32 Dover Street) were the height of sophistication and were designed with the comfort of their clients in mind. “It must be mentioned that in each salon there is a telephone; this is sure to appeal to the busy woman,” noted one editorial.

There was also the Phyllis Earle Institut de Beauté, an onsite training school, which unleashed its trained representatives into the provinces. There they proved very popular, demonstrating products and giving free consultations to a public eager to try this exclusive salon line.

Phyllis Earle herself has left little trace in the historical record—indeed, she may not have been a real person at all. The salons were, in fact, owned by a company: Rapidol, which was owned by Philip Walley Ducker and Noel Blake Ducker.

In common with other high-end salons, the Phyllis Earle establishments delighted in the advancement of beauty equipment and offered the latest treatments to their discerning and wealthy clientele. One of their most popular ranges was a Motor Cream, a protective skin cream which was advertised as suitable for application before motoring. Motoring was an increasingly popular activity for women in the first decades of the 20th century. And among the electrical face massages, electrolysis and scalp massage with artificial sunlight was another treatment: KemOlite, introduced to eager clients in 1922. This was a radioactive beauty plasma, said to make the skin lighter, more refined and to remove wrinkles and pimples.

Image for article titled Before Serums, Women Had Radium
Image: Pegasus Books

In a letter to a client, the Glasgow hairdresser and perfumer R. Sheldon Bamber showed how excited his establishment was to feature this range: “We installed a Phyllis Earle Specialist and fitted a Massage Parlour, in the most modern manner possible, some months ago, and the department has proved quite a boon to a great number of Glasgow Ladies.”

At the Phyllis Earle Mayfair address, or through the network of salons (which included Madame Pfob’s beauty salon in Norwich where my grandmother’s cousin worked at the time and my grandmother visited frequently) and shops that stocked the product, a client could experience the latest in modern radium treatments. And KemOLite cost twelve shillings and sixpence for what was described as a standard treatment, or fifteen shillings for the treatment and a massage. (Around £30–£40 in today’s money.)

Unlike the many technological advancements available at Phyllis Earle, KemOLite was a surprisingly low-tech treatment, but it proved to be very popular.

KemOLite advertisements reveal how it was to be prepared at home and, presumably, in the salons. It came as a dried powdered mud which was to be mixed with boiling water to form a thick paste, which was spread onto the face (or hands, arms, neck and shoulders). It was then allowed to dry. Once dry, it was removed and put back into the pot, as it could be reused again and again without losing its radioactive properties. It was said that the best results could be had by continuing the treatment every few days for a month. This sort of rinse-and-repeat instruction meant ladies would feel compelled to leave the salon with a pot for home use, to keep up the good work.

KemOlite seems to have worked rather like any other face mask of the time, or indeed of today. It stimulated the skin, bringing the blood to the surface and producing a healthy glow. However, the advertisements are rather less forthright in explaining exactly what the benefit of the addition of radium was. They merely stated that it was made from a “mysterious mineral deposit from the thermal springs in the lesser Carpathians.” This mineral deposit was also referred to as “Nature’s Own Radio-Active Beauty Plasma.”

KemOLite was not the only radioactive mud advertised by beauty specialists. Viabella Culture de Beauté, located at 102 Baker Street, London, were another company offering an apparently similar treatment “carried out by fully qualified masseuses under the most hygienic conditions in the latest scientific manner.” Caria Radium Medical Mud Preparations, produced by Caria Radium Ltd of 131 Regent Street, London, also offered a range of toiletries rich in radioactivity. They included soap and a skin balm which was invaluable to sufferers from skin blemishes, acne, eczema, blotches and pimples. Their mud purportedly came from a radium spa in Portugal and had been specially investigated and recommended by an expert pupil of Professor Curie (who this pupil was or which Professor Curie they were referring to was—perhaps deliberately—left unclear).

What made KemOLite really stand out from its competitors was the innovative and exciting advertising practices the company adopted. In addition to print ads in newspapers and magazines that ranged from the national publications like the Daily Express, or Tatler and Vogue the company also ran significant campaigns in local and regional periodicals aimed at capturing a profitable regional market.

One very successful innovation was working with the newsreel company British Pathé to make a film featuring KemOLite in use at the main Phyllis Earle salon. This silent black-and-white film, which was issued in July 1922, shows a white-coated, clinical-looking salon assistant mixing up the KemOLite and applying it to the face of her female client with a brush, before carefully peeling it off with her fingers. The end caption reads: “and Madame has stolen a few more precious years from Old Man Time.” Indeed, “Madame” is shown at the end admiring her complexion in a mirror.

While the British Pathé film would have reached a wide audience of people, smaller demonstrations of product use were a popular tool used by radium beauty companies who would have been keen to answer some of the questions that may have arisen around the use of the controversial products. The customers of Watt & Grant’s Stores of Union Street, Aberdeen and D.M. Brown of Dundee were treated to demonstrations of “Radium-Vita Radio-Active Beauty Preparations” by Mrs. Fletcher and Miss Williams: the personal representatives of Radium Vita Ltd. These demonstrators offered consultations and free facial treatments of such products as Radium Vita Day and Night Cream, Radium Vita Special Medical Cream, Radium Vita Rouge (“in a shade which tones with every skin, and it can also be used for lipstick”) and Radium Vita Face Powder (“in one shade only ... a powder that changes to the exact colour of your skin when applied”).

A 1918 ad from Vogue magazine
A 1918 ad from Vogue magazine
Image: Public Domain

Another radium-focused company, Radior, had expanded from their core business of rheumatism cures into the even more lucrative market of toilet preparations. They sold vanishing cream for day use, a night cream, rouge, talcum powder, skin soap, hair tonic and shampoo powder. To round out their product list, they also offered six tints of face powder—available in both pressed and loose forms.

While the cosmetic market had grown significantly in the 1920s and 1930s Radior differentiated itself from other firms with the claim that its products were not only of excellent quality but were the only ones that worked ‘for actual Betterment’ of the skin. “You would choose ‘Radior’ Preparations for their daintiness, delicacy and exquisite good taste—for the silky smoothness of the cream—for the impalpable fineness of the powders and the captivating, tantalizing, haunting fragrance found in all—an exclusive perfume of our own, not sold in any market. With Radium added the final word is said for beauty.”

Radior had also expanded its range of pads to encompass Forehead and Under Chin Pads. These were made from silk, came in several different “pretty” colors and also in various radioactive strengths.

The Under Chin Pad “adjusts comfortably to the chin by the aid of ribbons.” The company claimed that Radior Beauty Pads worked to eliminate and eradicate double chins and wrinkles by toning up and strengthening the facial muscles. At the same time, they also (apparently) did double duty preventing headaches and neuralgia.

Radior’s Beauty Pads were based on the principle that strapping or taping up the face would help to lift sagging neck muscles and reduce double chins. Face pads and straps have a long history and were common beauty items during the 1920s and 1930s (although most brands did not use radioactive materials). They were found in many ranges of products by well-known suppliers. These included Eleanor Adair, who supplied “Mrs. Adair’s Ganesh Toilet Preparations and the Ganesh Chin Strap,” and Elizabeth Arden Muscle Strapping treatments.

Radior differentiated themselves from products such as Caradium and KemOLite by emphasizing that their products were made with “ACTUAL RADIUM not ‘Radio-Active Water,’” which they highlighted meant their products “remain permanently Radio-Active.”

While acknowledging the curative powers of radioactive waters at spas, the company referenced the drawback of radon’s half-life on products made using it, arguing:

No preparation, unless it contain[s] actual Radium, will retain its power. If it contain[s] actual Radium, it will retain its power practi- cally forever, but radio-active water, loses its radioactivity in strict geometrical progression at the rate of 50 per cent every third day, so that after a few days from manufacture, radio-active water has no more remedial value than ordinary tap water. It is the use of such valueless articles which tends to foster disbelief in a proved remedy such as actual Radium.

The power of the radium in Radior products was emphasized in all their marketing copy: “As long as there is a trace of the powder on your cheeks, it is radio-active and is your aid to beauty”; or “‘Radior Pads’ remain radio-active permanently. No renewals necessary. Their first cost is their only cost.’”

Radium Vita Ltd, makers of the Radium Vita products mentioned earlier, as well as the “Radium Vita Mud Pack,” differentiated themselves from other companies with the claim that they reinforced the natural radioactivity of their muds. This strengthening was achieved by adding one microcurie of radium salts and maximized the amount of radioactivity imparted. Radium Vita also cautioned against the use of other mud packs, arguing that these were (mostly) “artificially made and often contain chemicals which frequently prove harmful after continuous applications.”

The following is excerpted and adapted from Half Lives: An Unlikely History of Radium by Lucy Jane Santos, publishing in July with Pegasus Books.