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Matchsticks Once Sickened and Deformed Women and Children

Women working in a match factory in London in 1871. Image credit: Public domain

Everyone knows the beginning of the age of industrialization in England was not pleasant. People looking for work crowded into cities, which then became cesspools of disease and pollution. One particularly dirty job done by women and children actually made them glow in the dark: matchstick making. And it also contributed to “phossy jaw,” a disease as gross as it sounds—necrosis of the jaw bone caused by phosphorus poisoning.

Recently, anthropologists studying the skeleton of a young teenager discovered that the bones appear to show the physical hallmarks of phosphorus poisoning, among other conditions. They published their findings in the open access journal International Journal of Paleopathology [PDF].

Matchstick making was incredibly popular in 19th century England, with hundreds of factories spread across the country. For 12 to 16 hours a day, workers dipped treated wood into a phosphorus concoction, then dried and cut the sticks into matches.

Some of the matches produced by Bryant & May. Long hours, low pay, and dangerous work conditions—including potential phossy jaw—sparked the Match Girls Strike of 1888. Three years later, Bryant & May stopped using white phosphorous in matches. Image credit: Wellcome Trust // CC BY 4.0

This work paid poorly, and half of the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.

The element phosphorous is essential for living creatures, especially in the form of calcium phosphate in the skeleton. However, too much of it can cause phosphorus poisoning.

People who were exposed in matchstick factories to white phosphorus are known historically to have developed physical ailments. Inhalation of phosphorus fumes could cause inflammation of the lungs and other pulmonary problems. Phosphorus hanging in the air and settling on walls and floors often gave the factory a blue-green glow. Workers went home with clothes that practically glowed in the dark, and those who inhaled too much phosphorus could have fluorescent vomit, bluish breath, and a glow around their mouths.

The remains of a young teenager who likely suffered the fate of these matchstick workers was recently studied by Durham University anthropologist Charlotte Roberts and her colleagues. The skeleton of the adolescent was unearthed from a Quaker cemetery in North Shields, in the Northeast of England, dating from the early 18th century to the mid 19th century. There were a number of matchstick producers in the region at the time, according to historical data.

The child, whose gender is unclear, died between 12 and 14 years old, and had suffered from scurvy and rickets, and possibly tuberculosis and phossy jaw. Roberts and her colleagues found pathological evidence for these conditions throughout the child’s skeleton. Abnormally bowed thigh bones suggest a defect in mineralization of the adolescent’s bones, likely caused by rickets; children working long hours in factories did not get enough sun to produce the vitamin D necessary for proper bone growth. But an extra, thin layer of bone on the legs and skull points to a second metabolic condition: scurvy, caused by insufficient consumption of vitamin C.

Additional bony changes in the rib cage suggest the teenager had a pulmonary problem, perhaps triggered by indoor or outdoor pollution, or perhaps it was related to tuberculosis.

Clearly, this person suffered from a number of dietary deficiencies and childhood diseases and, as Roberts and her colleagues write, “the skeleton of this person reflects the challenging environment in which he or she lived and worked during their short life.”

But it’s the lower jaw (below) that connects this adolescent to the industry of matchstick making. The researchers note that approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average. The condition is essentially a massive infection of the mandible resulting from cumulative exposure to phosphorus. The left side of the mandible of this adolescent shows widespread destruction as well as a curious mass of bone in the middle.

Charlotte Roberts in Anthropological Review

The researchers suggest that the mass is a chunk of dead bone that became engulfed by the infection. When they compared their findings from this adolescent’s mouth to historical reports of phossy jaw and to a 19th century mandible known to have been from a matchstick maker, they saw that "the lesions on these documented mandibles are very similar to those present” in this adolescent’s skeleton.

Although the researchers cannot conclusively prove this adolescent suffered from phossy jaw, the teenager would almost certainly have been “facially disfigured, with swelling and suppurations of the affected side of the face, [and] the foul discharge from the mouth as a result of osteomyelitis [bone infection] would have been odorous,” they write.

Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma.

In spite of the fact that problems such as phossy jaw were well known when matchstick production was at its height in England in the 1800s, the use of white phosphorus in this industry wasn’t outlawed until 1910. That means that for nearly a century, mostly poor women and children were exposed to toxic levels of phosphorus, as well as harmful working conditions in factories.

Although this adolescent skeleton represents the first likely paleopathological evidence of phosphorus poisoning, chances are high that more will be found as archaeologists learn how to recognize and diagnose the condition.

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Medicine
Bill and Melinda Gates Will Repay Nigeria's $76 Million Polio-Fighting Loan
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

Not long after announcing a $100 million donation to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, Bill and Melinda Gates have agreed to pay off Japan's $76 million loan to Nigeria to stamp out polio, Quartz reports.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries around the world, but it's still present in Nigeria, as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2008, according to The Conversation, Nigeria accounted for 86 percent of all polio cases in Africa. This high number was thanks in part to low immunization rates and calls from extremists to boycott polio vaccinations out of fear that they were tainted with anti-fertility steroids.

National and international campaigns were launched to lower polio rates in Nigeria, and in 2014 the nation received the loan from Japan to boost disease-fighting efforts. Progress has been made since then, with no new cases of polio reported in Nigeria in 2017. Two children had contracted polio in 2016, two years after Nigeria's last known case.

Nigeria's loan repayments to Japan were slated to begin in 2018. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to cover the costs after Nigeria met its goal of "achieving more than 80 percent vaccination coverage in at least one round each year in very high risk areas across 80 percent of the country's local government areas," Quartz reports. The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years.

While the Gates Foundation is lending a hand to Nigeria, the Associated Press reports that health officials in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province recently launched a new chapter in the nation's ongoing struggle against the disease. Health workers will engage in a week-long, door-to-door vaccination campaign, though efforts like this are risky due to threats from the Taliban and other militant groups, who view vaccinations as a Western conspiracy and believe they sterilize children. Anti-polio efforts in Pakistan also suffered after the CIA used vaccinations as a cover to get DNA samples from the Bin Laden compound.

[h/t Quartz]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground
Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

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