This is the terrible disease that caused the manufacture of the first matches

On this day, the first matchbox was sold, an unprecedented event that changed the way we live. However, its manufacture produced dire consequences for the workers in its factories.

Although we are not aware of it today, matches gave people the unprecedented ability to light a fire quickly and efficiently , greatly reducing the hours spent trying to light it using more primitive means. An advance that today, April 7 , turns 195 , since, in 1827, the first box of friction matches was sold. However, this invention also created unprecedented suffering for the workers who made them, as one of the substances used in some of these early matches was white phosphorous, a chemical used in weapons production that, for example, has used by Russia in its attacks on Ukraine. Prolonged exposure gave many of the workers the dreaded disease known as Phosphonecrosis or ” False Jaw .” A British pharmacist named John Walker was responsible for its invention, by accident , in 1826 , according to ” Today in Science History .”

The pharmacist was working on an experimental paste that could be used as a new explosive and, after stirring the mixture of chemicals in the saucer with a piece of wood , he observed that the mixture had dried into a teardrop shape . To remove it, he had the “brilliant” idea of ​​scraping it against the ground with pressure, watching, to his surprise, how it ignited.

lit match

Lit match PHOTO

According to Andrew Haynes , a journalist for ” The Pharmaceutical Journal “, Walker produced “a flammable paste made from antimony sulfide , potassium chlorate, and gum arabic , into which he dipped sulfur -coated cardboard strips .” He began selling his “friction lights” to locals on April 7, 1827 and they quickly became a hit. Walker never patented his invention, Haynes wrote, in part because “the layer of burning sulfur sometimes fell off the stick, risking damage to the ground or the wearer’s clothing.” Despite the dangers, however, he was advised to patent the matches, writes the “ BBC ”,“ So it is not clear why he did not do it ”. Which is why his invention was copied by Samuel Jones , a man who had attended many of Walker’s match demonstrations , who began selling his ” Lucifers ” in 1829 .

Experimentation with these new objects produced the first phosphors, which included white phosphorus , an innovation that spread rapidly. There were “hundreds of factories spread across the country,” Kristina Killgrove wrote for ” Mental Floss .” “For 12 to 16 hours a day, the workers soaked the treated wood in a phosphorus mixture, then dried it and cut the sticks.”

The terrible disease

Illustration of a match factory.

Illustration of a match factory. PHOTO: Wikipedia

As in many other occupations in 19th and 20th century British factories , the workers were predominantly women and children. “Half of the employees in this industry were children who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours inside a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of tuberculosis and rickets, matchmaking posed a specific risk: ‘false jaw,’” Killgrove said. This terrible condition was caused by the inhalation of white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11% of people exposed to phosphorous fumes developed ‘ phosphonecrosis‘ around five years after initial exposure,” the journalist wrote.

The condition causes the jawbone to die and the teeth to deteriorate , resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes loss of the jawbone . Although this condition was far from the only side effect of prolonged exposure to white phosphorous, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants . Something that caught the attention of the media at the time, which was investigating the plight of matchstick workers.

A London reporter for ” The Star ” visited a victim of the disease who had worked in a Salvation Army match factory . The woman, named Mrs. Fleet , “revealed that she had contracted the disease after working five years at the company,” the reporter wrote, adding: “After complaining of tooth and jaw pain, she was sent home, He had four teeth extracted, lost part of his jaw bone and suffered excruciating pain from the disease.” After that, she was fired from the company , in exchange for compensation that barely meant a few months’ salary.. Although the worst was yet to come, since he was not able to get another job. And it is that no match company would hire her, since she would associate the disease with her factory and that would make them look bad. “Historical records often compare people with phosphorescence of the jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the social stigma of the condition,” Killgrove said. Eventually, matchmakers stopped using white phosphorus and it was finally banned in 1910 .

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