Lucy Jane Santos, the cultural historian, explains how to hold a radium party like the ones that lit up New York a century ago.
At the beginning of July 2020 I held a radium party for friends and family to celebrate the launch of Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium. We had specially-created (slightly) glowing cocktails, atomic music, and I was interviewed by Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan from A House Through Time.
While a radium party is unusual these days, it certainly wasn’t quite as rare in the early 1900s when radium was the height of fashion and just owning some, or even borrowing some for the evening, was a marker of your sophistication and wealth. You can read more about that (and see some of my radium collection) at the Museum of Radium.
In New York City – which seems to have been rather the centre of all things radium party – the 1904 Sunshine Dinner took place. This party, which was only open to alumni and guests of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), including a thrilling display of ‘radium’ designed to both amuse the attendees and to show off the latest in scientific novelties.
By all accounts, during the night a series of entertainments were presented that astounded the 150 men (and it was limited to men) in attendance and fascinated those who read about it afterwards. All published accounts agree that after the meal the dining room was darkened and that luminous paint was used to significant effect, but they differ on some key points. Some claimed that there were glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons and balloons. There was even a report of a glowing human skeleton, said to be that of the founder of MIT.
In any case, all of this was merely a prelude to the main event of the night where those present got to drink a glass of ‘Liquid Sunshine.’ When the guests sat down for dinner, they found a miniature mug containing a capsule of aesculin (an extract from horse chestnuts which, like quinine, fluoresces blue when exposed to radiation) and a crystal glass of pure, sparkling water beside their plates.
At a signal from the toastmaster, the diners were told to add the capsule (which had, at least so it was claimed, previously been exposed to radium) into the glass, where it would dissolve and infuse the water with radioactivity. Each drink glowed impressively in the darkened room thanks to the aesculin, which made the water fluoresce.
A toast was raised, the Liquid Sunshine was drunk like a shot of whiskey, and the group moved on to singing several rousing songs – the tempo being kept by a conductor who waved a glistening baton tipped with glow-in-the-dark paint.
The rather bizarre activities of this group of scientists, medical men and professionals was reported the next day and for months afterwards with illustrations, poems, reports and commentaries of the night, some even including a recipe for a liquid sunshine ‘cocktail’.
The recipe for this easy to make (but rather difficult to source) drink was: “One part of sulphate of quinine, fifty thousand parts of water. Stir until dissolved in a glass. Insert a tube of radium until sufficient radio-activity is developed to cause the water to throw off violet or ultraviolet rays. Drink it as you would sauterne [sic] or champagne.”
The New York Times assured its readers that “[n]one of the self-sacrificing scientists who drank the liquid became transparent afterwards,” but that their “interiors were thoroughly illuminated.”
Radium parties were not always full of celebrities, royalty and incredibly rare elements: sometimes they were a bit more homespun.
In the Book of Parties and Pastimes, a book featuring over 90 party ideas published in 1912 and written by two women – Mary Dawson and Emma Paddock Telford – we are given an example of ‘A Radium Party’ which, we are told, is the way that a “New York entertainer of moderate means” held a similar party recently.
The introduction to this party makes it clear that this is done on a budget; the properties of radium are referenced in very simple ways. For example, Dawson reported that the guests waited in the parlour, where, in a darkened closet, “a pebble or chip of wood (coated with phosphorous to impart an eerie glow) was exhibited as ‘1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of an ounce of the true Radium discovered by Professor and Madame Curie.”
The main suggestions are how to introduce the motif into the supper – so the authors write about a centrepiece with ribbons and flowers (to simulate rays) radiating from it, sandwiches wrapped in iridescent paper foil and lots of silver dishes and cutlery.
As far as possible only silver was used on the table, and whenever china dishes appeared they were hidden by silver paper, fringed at the edge. At each corner of the table were huge silver balls, such as form ornaments for Christmas trees, and these reflected the dazzlingly bright lights of the table and its setting. Candles were used for lighting and were held in silver candlesticks, which rested on sheets of tinfoil crumpled up to look like silver rocks. The name cards were written in silver ink, as were the invitations to the festivity.
The second game was to “decide the question whether Professor Curie or his wife was the real discoverer” of radium. To do this they wrote the word ‘radium’ twice over six pieces of cardboard. One set of these pieces was on pink cardboard and the other on pale blue. These pieces were hidden around the room before the guests arrived. Then the men were called up to prove that it was Pierre that was the real discoverer: to do this they would need to find the six pink cards before the women could find the six blue ones.
Towards the end of the repast, a bowl filled with coloured popcorn was passed among the guests. This course was accompanied by a silver ladle. Each guest was invited to dip out a ladleful of the popcorn and try to discover the bit ‘radium’ hidden in the bowl – which proved to be a “wee jewelry box wrapped in gold paper and containing a pretty stick pin”.
My party certainly wasn’t as well themed. But if you would like to make the cocktail, which we named Half Lives in honour of the book, the recipe is: 50 ml gin, 12 ml crème de violette and half a lemon. Add the gin, crème de violette and a generous squeeze of half a lemon into a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for no more than five seconds and strain into a glass. Top up with dry prosecco (optional).
Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th-century leisure, health, and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. She writes and talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Half Lives is her debut book.
Radium cocktail: supplied by author
Soda syphon with ‘radon’ bulbs “for the preparation of Radio-Active Water”: supplied by author
The Radium Dance poster: supplied by author
Display of radium products, Marie Curie Museum, Paris: via Wikimedia
‘Standard’ radium solution for drinking and injection: via Wikimedia