Big Bertha

Big Bertha
Circa 1940, on the streets of Rochester New York, Bertha does her work.
"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

Paul Valery

"You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time."

The Wisdom of the Ages

"When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed',"

Mikhail Kalashnikov
"Here lies the bravest soldier I've seen since my mirror got grease on it."

Zapp Brannigan

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The London Matchgirl's Strike of 1888. Another chapter in the history of the 99%


Has anyone other than me noticed that matches (You know - They're like a lighter but biodegradable) these days are steaming chunks of shit?
And, you can't even find the good ones, the "strike anywhere", kitchen matches anymore. That's what matches were when I was growing up.
The other bitchen' thing about them was that they could be gun-decked into primers.
A Cormac McCarthy book, "The Orchard Keeper" has a character recollecting firing a percussion shotgun with a match-head inside a cottonseed hull for a cap.
It would work. I've put them on my vise, hit them with a hammer and they make a bang.
But alas, we're leaving behind all the things that were, not only cool but, essential to "livin' large" in the world.
All nostalgia aside: As counterproductive as they are, I love Bic lighters. Other brands are shit - as are the tiny Bic's.
I use the things several times a day - and I don't smoke. I'm always lighting something on fire so this is important to me.
I always buy any color but black since the black ones always disappear into the clutter on the work bench and I always pry off the stupid little "child-proofing" strip.
But in the realm of lighters, no one can dispute the absolute coolness of the classic Zippo. There's something I love about this pocket-sized thing that needs to be "gassed-up".
Coolness aside, gotta give 'em a miss. I'm a busy man.
But this is about matches - and not the ones nowadays where trees in the forest and chemicals in the warehouse are magically transformed into shitty matches without ever being touched by human hands.
This is about the time when human hands were a very large part of the process.
Now, if any libertarians - or other fools who think that regulation in manufacturing is silly - happen to be reading this, go and ask your Mommy if you can stay up just a little bit longer. Tell her it will be educational.
Bryant and May were a concern which organized, in the 1840's in London, for the purpose of marketing Swedish matches.
They later took possession of of a factory in Bow, London that, prior to their acquisition, had made such disparate products as candles, crinoline and rope (?).
To B&M's credit (and ignoring the unfortunate acronym their initials make) the firm began with the idea of making nothing but "safety matches". That is: strike-on-the-box matches.
This altruistic move wasn't because they hated the idea of someone making impact, ignition devices from their products. I'm sure that had never occurred to them.
It was because safety matches were made with, relatively safe, red phosphorus.
But, red phosphorus is expensive and... what if the strip on the box wears out?
So, the invisible hand told them to also manufacture the "strike anywhere" variety.
So, here's the problem: These matches required white phosphorus.
Okay, this is nasty shit. Funny thing though; it can be converted to red phosphorus by simply heating it to a bit less than 500 Fahrenheit.
Then it can be converted back by heating it about forty degrees or so past that temperature. I don't get it. I'm not a chemist.
Of course, it's also the fabled "Willie Pete" of all the Garritrooper's war stories.
I was never supposed to call it that. As a 13F I had to be disciplined on the radio.
Many a mission at Yakima Firing Center or Gowen Field, Idaho included, as its conclusion: "Whiskey Papa and HE in effect" (The classic "shake-and-bake" I have no idea why "high explosive" managed to dodge the phonetic alphabet bullet but, so it goes).
Now, this horrible shit, mixed with... some other stuff, was heated in a large pan (Large as in: Over a thousand people worked here - not all in this one spot but that's how big an outfit B&M was) which the girls (They tended to be female but some were older and some - like the fella pictured - were also guys) dipped the ends of little wooden sticks - for twelve to sixteen hours a day.
So, beside this warmed-up tub of toxic horror was where these folks spent their workday. The phosphorus fumes being breathed in regularly - and also, said fumes permeated their clothing and worst of all - their lunches.

No separate place to eat or store what they'd brought from home was provided so they sat in the same place they worked while munching down on their contaminated food.
But this wasn't even the main complaint. The company also issued fines for things like: going to the bathroom too often or dropping something on the floor or not kissing the appropriate ass.
The strike began around July, 2 when management, reacting to an article on "White Slavery in London", written by Annie Besant, circulated a letter contradicting the article for the workers to sign.
One girl didn't and so - on another pretext, she was canned.
The first day some 1400 women and girls walked off the job. Management offered to reinstate the girl but the strikers weren't having it.
They dragooned Annie Besant into helping them and it went from there.
After the London Trades Council became involved and a Member of Parliament spoke of it on the floor, the company caved two weeks later.
The system of fines was eliminated and complaints could be taken directly to management and... they got a lunchroom.
Back to Willie Peter: Apparently, phosphorus goes to the bone when ingested and the jaw bone is somehow (something about continuous growth... I'm not a doctor, Dammit, Jim!) the place where the chickens come to roost.
"Phossy Jaw" (Don't abused workers come up with the cutest names for things!) was the result.
It might take several years to develop but, when the symptoms became noticeable and noticeable they were, you had less than two years to live without treatment.
And said treatment was no day at the beach.
Symptoms: Swelling, toothache (You're shittin' me!), tooth loss, headaches, chunks of the jawbone working out through the gums as the jaw slowly deteriorated.
Bad as all that is, the icing on the cake was... the draining ulcers that showed up outside, on the jaw-line; the fluid so drained being described as "foul smelling".
So, you could obviously count on lots of company during your convalescence.
It did have its upside though: The affected bone (while slowly disintegrating) would glow with a greenish - white light in the dark.
Is that cool or what?!?!
Great ice-breaker at parties! - except you'd stink - and to see it folks would have to overcome retching and look in your mouth.
Probably not the crowd-pleaser I'm imagining.
Folks in the neighborhood where the factory was situated would notice that, of an evening after the girls got off shift, there would be various, fluorescing puddles of barf.
Just to end on an upbeat note, a little medical documentation:

“The patient was a 35-year-old matchmaker who presented with great external swelling and in a debilitated state from inability to take solid food. Extending from ear to ear along the line of the jaw was a chain of ulcerated openings, from which there was profuse discharge and through any of which a probe could reach dead bone. Inside the mouth, the toothless alveolar process was seen bared of soft parts in its whole extent, the bone being rough and brownish-black. The gum gaped widely away from the dead jaw and had receded so as to leave it above the natural level of that bone, a probe could be passed easily either in front or behind the bone toward the sinuses of the neck. Under chloroform, the jaw was removed by dividing it at the symphysis and dragging the two halves out separately.”

Short version: She just lost her entire lower jaw. No corn-on-the-cob for her.
But, everyone learned from the experience.
Finland banned white-phosphorus based matches in 1872; Denmark in 1874; Sweden in 1879; Switzerland in 1881 and the Netherlands in 1901.
An agreement, the Berne Convention, was reached at Bern, Switzerland, in 1906 to prohibit the use of white phosphorus in matches.
Great Britain passed a law in 1908 prohibiting its use in matches after 31 December 1910.
The United States did not pass a law, but instead placed a "punitive tax" on white phosphorus-based matches, one so high as to render their manufacture financially impractical, in 1913.
Gee, twenty-five years after the fact. Innit that nice of them?
But, we weren't just sitting on our hands.
In 1910 Diamond Match (The flagship of modern day, shitty match manufacturing) discovered a way to make non-toxic matches. About fucking time.
In a serious break from the way our modern-day Republicans think, Big Bill Taft asked Diamond to release their patent "...for the good of mankind."
They did so.
Corporations used to behave like citizens.

Unrelated: Just want to clarify my problem with Mr. Correia; and this goes right to the heart of Larry's lack of service being a disqualifying factor in many case.
Okay, in defending the latest mouth-breather, leading in the anybody-but-Romney sweepstakes, he states:

"Uh, part of Cain's job at the Navy was related to Chinese nuclear weapons... I'm fairly certain he knows they have nukes."
(Scroll down for the stupid)

Larry, Larry, Larry... nukes are strategic. The stuff Herman did (Impressive as I'm sure it was) was tactical.
Besides, he was a civilian employee using his mathematical skills dealing with fire-control systems for Naval gunnery and ballistics.
I don't think he bumped heads with the strategic I-wonder-if-China's-nukes-pose-a-threat-? crowd at all.
It isn't like the Department of the Navy has one big lunchroom.
Jesus, Larry... pull your head out.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bic lighters in a blacksmith shop??? My former welding instructor preached *not in his shop* He was Ex navy master chief welder wwii era, damn good welder and ok teacher.

Strikeanywhere matches are
available, $4.49 for 3 boxes of 250 locally. They even have a *green* version with longer thicker sticks, cut from a *sustainable* forest..wooho

Dan brock said...

Thanks for the match info.
The Bic safety is an issue but what I do doesn't generate any appreciable sparks - at least where the lighters are.

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