Project: Phossy jaw and the matchgirls



The piece of jawbone I held when I visited the Hunterian Museum in London came from a man who died in 1869 in what his doctor described as “most violent pain.” The bone and the man’s initials—“JB”—are all that remains of the 35-year-old. The jaw was greyish and worm-eaten—rougher and lighter than a normal jawbone should be. “Pumice-like” was the term his doctors used. When it was freshly removed from JB’s dead body, and rinsed of pus (“the smell from which was intolerable,” a witness said), the jawbone glowed ghostly green in the dark. Nearly a century and half later, the glow has gone, the oxidative processes that gave it its ghoulish gleam spent.

JB had worked in a match factory in the East End of London for 23 years. What he had died from was “phossy jaw,” or phosphorus necrosis, the matchmaker’s disease. JB’s job in the match factory was to mix the chemical paste that tipped the matches, dunk wooden splints into the paste, and set them to dry. The paste contained white phosphorus, which is highly poisonous. JB breathed in the phosphorus fumes each day, and got the wet paste smeared on his hands and clothes. The green glow of his jawbone, and likely on his breath, too, if you saw him in a darkened room, was from the white phosphorus his body absorbed. When his face began to swell in late 1868 and he was “unable to take any solid nourishment, and lived on slops and beef tea,” he held off going to a doctor because he already knew it was “the dreaded phos.” He died—in agony—the following year.

I am working on a book about phossy jaw and the matchmakers like JB and the famous Bryant and May matchgirls who suffered from it. In the events this book narrates, a new technology based on clever chemistry transformed Victorian home life. But in doing so, the humble match also transformed how we work. This is a story about how real men and women forged new rules for living in the fledging, factory-filled society. The birth of modern work.