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American LucifersThe Dark History of Artificial Light, 1750-1865$
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Jeremy Zallen

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781469653327

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469653327.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of North Carolina Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NCSO for personal use.date: 18 September 2021

Lucifer Matches and the Global Violence of Phosphorus

Lucifer Matches and the Global Violence of Phosphorus

(p.168) Chapter Five Lucifer Matches and the Global Violence of Phosphorus
American Lucifers

Jeremy Zallen

University of North Carolina Press

Sulfuric acid also made possible the other revolutionary lighting technology of the nineteenth century: lucifer friction matches. Those phosphorus matches, incredibly cheap, found their way into the hands of the highest and the lowest, everyone now a strike or a jostle away from producing instant, useful, but also potentially devastating flames. Using thousands of tons of coal and sulfuric acid, European chemical manufacturers extracted hundreds of tons of elemental phosphorus from the mountains of bones left in the wake of the slaughter of Pampas cattle in the South American port cities of the Río de La Plata and, later, from phosphates mined on West Indian guano islands. In American cities, thousands of child workers used that European phosphorus to mass-produce incredibly cheap lucifer matches, a process that starkly illustrated the hidden politics and slow violence of producing the means of light. Struggling to work and, even more pressingly, to live in the inescapable ecology of toxic phosphorus, lucifer-making children attempted to change work environments and win powerful allies, all while trying to survive and mitigate an agonizing, degenerative, disfiguring illness from phosphorus poisoning they called “the compo” and officials called “the jaw disease.”

Keywords:   child labor, lucifer match industry, matches, phosphorus manufacture, Río de la Plata slaughterhouses, bones and bone ash, guano mining, arson, jaw disease, slow violence

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