It is sadly something you might see in reimagined Wizard of Oz – girls in ruffled hats, full skirts, puffy sleeves, and Peter Pan collars topped by golden faces and bright yellow, orange, or red hair. They were called The Canary Girls. Not only did they have to abide these odd looks, but the children they gave birth to during this time often did as well.
This was a disturbing side effect to working in munitions plants in WWI Britain. The TNT caused workers’ skin to turn yellow. Because the boys were off at war, most of the plant workers were women, and so those suffering from this peculiar aberration became known as The Canary Girls.
Munitionette Caroline Rennles later recalled “So it was all bright ginger, all our front hair, you know. And all our faces were bright yellow – they used to call us canaries . . . some of them used to look at us as though we was insects, know what I mean? And others used to mutter, ‘Oh well they’re doing their bit.’ As I say, some was quite nice and others, you know, used to treat us as though we was scum of the earth. ’Course we, all our clothes like, we couldn’t wear like good clothes because the powder used to seep into your clothes, know what I mean?”
The effects were more than cosmetic. Many women complained of nausea and skin rashes or hives. Some had coughs or chest infections from TNT poisoning. According to a TNT factory worker quoted in Katie Adie’s 2013 book, Fighting on the Homefront, “You expected to feel ‘poorly’; our skin was perfectly yellow, right down through the body, legs and toenails even.”
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