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World War One and the Working Women of Wilmington

Based on our research, more than 50% of the workers in the Penniman Shell Loading Plant were women. The high explosives used in the plant turned the worker’s skin a bright yellow color. This was such a common problem that it became a frequent topic in early 20th Century medical journals. It was called “TNT poisoning.”

The women workers became known as “Canary Girls,” because of their bright yellow skin and ginger-colored hair. At lunch time, the Canary Girls were segregated in the cafeteria, because everything they touched turned yellow.

The body’s reaction to to the TNT usually began with sneezing fits, a bad cough, severe sore throat and profound digestive woes. Some women said the worst of it was the constant metallic taste in their mouth.

Many women simply couldn’t tolerate the suffering produced by the super-fine explosive dust that hung in the air, and left after the first day.  Others left when their health failed, days or weeks later. A few died.

The medical journals of the day stated that only 24% of the workers (male and female) showed no symptons of TNT poisoning (based on blood tests).

More than 3/4ths of the workforce were affected by the daily exposure to the high explosives. Some dramatically.

TNT poisoning depressed the development of red and white blood cells, which explains why the Spanish Flu was so devastating at Penniman. It wasn’t the tight quarters that killed Penniman employees by the dozens: It was the compromised immune system.

But more on that later.

According to newspaper articles, more than 130 women left their homes in Wilmington, NC to go to Penniman in the late summer of 1918.

I wonder if anyone in Wilmington knows more about this piece of their local history?

What inspired all these women from Wilmington to jump on a train and go “stuff one for the Kaiser” at this plant in Virginia? Did any of these women share their story about life at Penniman after the war? Did all the women come back to Wilmington healthy and strong? Did some perish during the Spanish Flu epidemic?

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

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Triton

This appeared in in a 1918 US Army publication titled "The Shell Loader," which gave some wonderful insight into day-to-day life at Penniman. Notice that one of the things a Penniman soldier should know is, "Whether Triton (TNT) or Nature made his girl's hair that way."

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Rude girls

Oatine Face Cream was marketed specifically to Canary Girls. Notice the 155-mm shells scattered about on the ground. Image is from "Nice Girls and Rude Girls: Women Workers in World War I (Social and Cultural History Today)" published in 2000 by I. B. Tauris and written by Deborah Thom. Great book!

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Over

"Mrs. Lamb and Miss Jackson are astonished by their response to their appears for volunteers for war work..." (August 30, 1918, Wilmington Morning Star.)

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Not

Wages: 34 cents per hour. And by the way, if you or your parents were born in Germany (or Austria or Hungary or The Ottoman Empire), you would not be employable at Penniman.

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house house house

This article appeared in the "Wilmington Morning Star" on September 7, 1918.

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house

And someone took pictures! This appeared in "The Wilmington Morning Star," on September 9, 1918. Based on my ciphering, that picture should appear on September 15th, plus or minus three days. Bottom of first paragraph: "The Wilmington women are carried away with...the surroundings." Really?

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Surroundings

"The Wilmington women are carried away with...the surroundings." In Summer 1918, Penniman had more than 15,000 living within its small borders. (Photo is courtesy Hagley Museum and Library.)

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The workers at Penniman wore an outfit such as this.

The women workers at Penniman probably wore a "uniform" such as this. It was found that skin contact with TNT caused severe dermatitis, and that the ankles, wrists and waistband were particularly susceptible, so there were elasticized bands at these points. Gloves were also worn in the shell-loading plants. (Ladies' Home Journal, June 1918.)

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To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.

To read more about Penniman, click here.

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  1. Susan Grace
    July 21st, 2014 at 13:30 | #1

    Hello, I found your site while searching for more information about Sears Modern Homes.

    I have found a Colchester model in Ft. Mitchell, KY built in 1928 or 1929. Much of it looks to be original but I think the kitchen was updated a bit at some point.

    It is for sale and I’m wondering about remodeling. I’d like to keep to the look of the time period but need a much larger kitchen.

    I’d also like to add a deck from the kitchen door around the side of the house to the back. Is this a major faux pas?

    Would I be breaking hearts every where if I tear down the dining room walls to make the living room/dining room/kitchen into a great room?

    I love this house…the exterior looks exactly like the pictures of the Colchester advert in the Sears Modern Homes catalog.

    The floor plans match exactly except the builder put in extra closets and a bathroom upstairs rather than a play room. I want to do the right thing but need to make this my home. Can you give me some advice about where to look for help?

    Thank you,
    Susan Grace

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