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Vaseline Beads and the Radioactive Era of Fashion

Would you sacrifice your health for the sake of fashion? It's almost unthinkable today, but in the early 1900s, glass-makers were using uranium as a color enhancer for just about every decorative glass object you can think of. From earthenware jugs to great strands of Trade Beads, the radioactive element was so favored for its neon qualities when mixed with glass, no-one questioned the possible side-effects.

Uranium was first discovered in the 1830s, however, it wasn't until Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays in 1895, (and Marie Curie's own subsequent research), that it came to be recognized for its color enhancing properties. Back then, radioactive materials were often seen as health-giving elements. That, coupled with its distinct green-yellow neon properties convinced manufacturers in Old Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) that uranium would make their beads all the more appealing to tribes in Africa.

By 1905 Czech glass-makers had refined the concentration of uranium salts needed to alter glass to just 1-2%. This created a greenish yellow hue similar in color to the branded petroleum jelly Vaseline, however, when light rays penetrated the beads, they would glow a bright neon yellow-green. Vaseline Beads became highly sought after among tribes in Mali and Ethiopia, many of whom believed the beads to be vessels inhabited by spirits. Fortunately for them, the beads contained such a low concentration of uranium, they were no longer a health hazard!