In the nineteenth century, the “lucifer match” became quite popular in England due to its ability to easily ignite with a strike anywhere on the head. There was a large demand for the matches since they were convenient and cheap for buyers. Bryant and May’s company was a large factory that took advantage of the simple production process that only required splints of wood which were heated and dipped into sulfur or paraffin, an inflammable waxy substance, and set in a frame that held thousands of matches. The entire frame was carried to the match maker, and the match maker dipped the matches in a mixture containing materials like glue, dye and phosphorus. The matches were left to dry and packaged afterwards. These children repeated these tasks and worked fourteen hours a day for less than 5 shillings a week, which is roughly equivalent to $1.20 in the United States. The employers were also quick to fine the young girls for offenses such as talking, dropping matches, being tardy, arriving with dirty feet, and going to the restroom without permission (Satre 201). They would also experience the occasional blow from foremen for misconduct.
While the children were concerned with having to follow strict protocol to get paid, another threat soon made its presence known. Unfortunately, the “dippers” were unaware of the toxicity of phosphorus; and an outbreak of “phossy jaw” occurred. This increased in part because workers were not given separate facilities where they could eat, so they ate at their workbenches and were exposed to the phosphorus constantly. The inhaled phosphorous fumes reacts with water and carbon dioxide in the jaw, creating a potent chemical called biphosphate that harmed the jaw bone. The biphosphate specifically targets the jaw because the bone around the teeth is especially sensitive to biphosphate toxicity; and the figure above highlights the decay around the roots of the teeth. Pain and swelling indicated the onset of the illness. Then, the jaw gives off a greenish glow and a foul odor, while becoming covered in abscesses. Finally, the jaw necroses and turns black; and if the infection is allowed to spread, the illness becomes fatal. Amputation of the jaw was the only medical treatment available at the time, so the affected children that were treated would be left disfigured for life. The depiction below displays the obvious overbite and puckering of the cheeks.
Another disfigurement that affected the children was baldness. The children would often carry boxes on their heads; and with the long, frequent shifts that the children worked, the hair would eventually rub off. While baldness is not nearly as terrifying as a jawbone putrifying, it is a permanent defacement that often harmed the girls’ confidence and self esteem.
Because the largest output of matches was expected, work was often twelve hours a day. They were paid initially meager wages, and had large pay reductions due to fines. With the small amount left, workers were expected to pay for clothing, rent, brushes, paint, and other equipment. They were told to never “mind their fingers” when working with machinery. Due to this, injury of the fingers and hands was common.
In 1888, Clementina Black gave a speech on female labor; and Annie Besant, an author in the audience, was so horrified with the working conditions at the Bryant and May factory that she went to the factory the next day and interviewed the adolescent women working there. She wrote an article called “White Slavery in London” that was published in her newspaper titled, The Link. Within the paper, she discusses the appalling working conditions in the factory. Besant used her newspaper as a way rile up her audience and call for a boycott of the Bryant and May factory. In one of her articles, she wrote, “Girls are used to carrying boxes on their heads until the hair is rubbed off and the young heads are bald at fifteen years of age? Country clergymen with shares in Bryant & May’s draw down on your knee your fifteen year old daughter; pass your hand tenderly over the silky clustering curls, rejoice in the dainty beauty of the thick, shiny tresses” (Simkin 2014).
The factory, of course, attempted to cover up the incident by having their workers sign a statement that said the employees were happy with their working conditions. Naturally, a group of adolescent women refused; and they were fired. Then 1,400 women at Bryant and May went on strike. The women decided to organize a matchgirls’ union, and Besant was appointed their leader (Simkin 2014).
After 3 weeks, the company decided to re-hire the women and put a stop to the fine system. Besant, along with other prominent authors, decided to continue to spread awareness of the toxicity of yellow phosphorus until it was illegal (Simkin 2014).
The Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Edmonton, 1908 notes that new legislation, “The White Phosphorus Matches Act” finally prohibited the use of phosphorus in matches in order to eliminate “match-maker’s jaw” (another name for phossy jaw) (p. 58).
Written by Nina Rivera Roldan with contributions by Denise Webb
Satre, Lowell J. “After the Match Girls’ Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 7-31.
Simkin, John. The Matchgirls Strike in Spartacus Educational. 2014