During the late 19th century, the East End of London was home to several factories that produced matches. Men, women, and children worked long hours for very little money, dipping matchsticks into phosphorus, unaware of the fumes they were breathing in and the toxins that were destroying their bodies.
"Phossy jaw" was the most common physical side-effect of working as a matchstick worker, a condition that led to the deterioration of one's jaw to the point of utter deformity. A precursor to later factory-based occupational diseases like those endured by the Radium Girls and an early example that using chemicals without a full understanding of their consequences can have disastrous consequences, the resulting 1888 Matchstick Girls strike set a path for increased workers' rights and improved workplace conditions. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of pain and suffering along that path.
Bryant & May were leaders in the matchstick industry, innovating and producing at the expense of their workers. Matchstick production was competitive, and there were several factories located in London, Birmingham, and Liverpool. Out of the over 4,000 matchstick workers in England, Bryant & May employed more than 2,000 people, mostly young girls and women between the ages of 14 and 18, during the 19th century.
Factories in the Industrial Revolution were tightly packed, dirty, and often dangerous buildings run by strict and greedy owners looking to increase their profits as much as possible – no matter the cost. The Bryant & May factory was no different. Descriptions of the factory indicate it was akin to a "prison-house." The matchmaking process was done under one roof, and "Lucifer" matches, as they were known, found great popularity as an alternative to flint-and-steel. By dipping small pieces of wood into a chemical compound of white or yellow phosphorus, consumers could light their lanterns, fireplaces, and any other fire they wished to start with newfound ease. Putting all of the workers into one place cut down overhead costs and made for a more efficient system of mass production.
In order to increase profits, factories paid low wages for long hours of work. There was no shortage of labor, and factories could take advantage of this, paying as little as necessary. Matchstick workers, because most of them were women, made even less than their male counterparts as they toiled from 6 am to 6 pm daily. Many women made less than the equivalent of 10 cents an hour and were expected to pay for their housing, food, and clothing with that money.
Notably, sometimes women worked from home to put together matchstick boxes, as well. The residue from the phosphorus was still present on the materials they took into their homes.
The Bryant & May factory took money out of the wages they paid their workers for infractions such as a messy work-station or matches that caught fire during a shift. The fines could also be levied for sitting down on the job – because the women were expected to stand all day – for talking, or for being late. If a worker was late, she was docked half-a-day's wages. The factory owners took liberties with wages in other ways. One example at the Bryant & May factory included deducting from each girl's wage to pay for a statue to honor Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone in East London.
Money aside, the women were also subjected to physical abuse and bodily harm in what was termed "white slavery" by Annie Besant in 1888.
Workers at the Bryant & May factory, as well as other matchstick producing facilities, experienced face swelling and tooth pain because of the phosphorus fumes they inhaled. Teeth often rotted and fell out, leaving the jaw exposed and deterioration to continue leading to what was called "phossy jaw." The faces of those affected glowed in the dark.
Bryant & May's dentist stated that the women who were experiencing these symptoms were older and of a lower social class which, according to them, explained their deteriorating teeth.