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.

The National Archives // Open Government Licence

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.