The Canary Girls were the United Kingdom's female trinitrotoluene (TNT) shell makers of the First World War (1914–1918). The nickname arose because exposure to TNT is toxic, and repeated exposure can turn the skin an orange-yellow colour reminiscent of the plumage of a canary (a bird which itself was used by miners to detect toxic carbon monoxide in coal mines). These women were also referred to by the nickname "munitionettes".
Since most working age men were joining the military to fight in the war, women were required to take on the factory jobs that were traditionally held by men. This marked a huge change in women's work culture, as most had previously been expected to stay at home and raise children, or to take on menial roles such as domestic service. In the UK, slogans like "National Service" and "Women's Land Army" were used to encourage young women to join the workforce.
By the end of the war, there were almost three million women working in factories, around a third of whom were employed in the manufacture of munitions, which involved mixing explosives, and filling shells and bullets. The factory working conditions were often extremely hazardous and the women worked long hours for low pay. They were exposed to toxic chemicals that caused their skin and hair to turn yellow, hence the nickname "Canary Girls". As well as the yellow skin discolouration, those who worked in the munitions factories also reported headaches, nausea and skin irritations such as hives. As a result, factories were forced to improve ventilation and provide the workers with masks.
After the war, it was expected that women should resume their domestic roles to make way for the men returning from the front line. However, their contribution to the war effort had showcased their capabilities, fundamentally changing the way that women were regarded in society and adding considerable momentum to the women's suffrage movement.
Effects of working with TNT
The shells were filled with a mixture of TNT (the explosive) and cordite (the propellant), and even though these ingredients were known to be hazardous to health, they were mixed by hand so came into direct contact with the workers' skin. The chemicals in the TNT reacted with melanin in the skin to cause a yellow pigmentation, staining the skin of the munitions workers. Although unpleasant, this was not dangerous and the discolouration eventually faded over time with no long-term health effects.
A more serious consequence of working with TNT powder was liver toxicity, which led to anaemia and jaundice. This condition, known as "toxic jaundice", gave the skin a different type of yellow hue. Four hundred cases of toxic jaundice were recorded among munitions workers in the First World War, of which one hundred proved fatal.
A medical investigation was carried out by the government in 1916, to closely study the effects of TNT on the munitions workers. The investigators were able to gather their data by acting as female medical officers posted inside the factories. They found that the effects of the TNT could be roughly split into two areas: irritative symptoms, mainly affecting the skin, respiratory tract, and digestive system; and toxic symptoms, including nausea, jaundice, constipation, dizziness, etc.
It is possible that the irritative symptoms were also partly caused by the cordite in the shell mixture, although this was not established until years later.
It was not only the UK's female munitions workers that were affected by the TNT, but also the babies that were born to them. Hundreds of "Canary Babies" were born with a slightly yellow skin colour because of their mothers' exposure to dangerous chemicals in the munitions factories during World War One. Nothing could be done for the babies at the time, but the discolouration slowly faded with time.
- Munitionettes – British women employed in munitions factories during WWI
- National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell – UK explosives filling factory in WWI
- Radium Girls – US female factory workers who contracted radiaton poisoning in early 20th century
- Rosie the Riveter – US equivalent term for female munitions workers during WWII
- Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring – British painting depicting women's contribution to war effort in WWII
- Xanthoproteic reaction – chemical process responsible for yellow colouration when handling TNT
- Sue V. Rosser (June 2008). Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present (encyclopaedia). ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598840957.
- "Canary Girls and the role of women in WWI". The Royal British Legion. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
- Winston, George (14 October 2016). "WWI 'Canary Babies' were born with a yellow tint to their skin because their mothers worked in munitions factories". War History Online. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
- Potts, Lauren; Rimmer, Monica (20 May 2017). "The Canary Girls: The workers the war turned yellow". BBC News. Retrieved 28 May 2017.
- "WARTIME FACTORY DISASTER (Inside Out – East Midlands: Monday 10th February, 2003)". BBC. 24 September 2014.
- Livingstone-Learmonth, Agnes; Cunningham, Barbara Martin (12 August 1916). "The Effects of Tri-Nitro-Toluene on Women Workers" (PDF). The Lancet. pp. 261–310. Retrieved 17 November 2018.
- Weiner, J. S.; Thomson, M. L. (October 1947). "Observations on the Toxic Effects of Cordite" (PDF). British Journal of Industrial Medicine. 4 (205). PMID 18919033. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
- Hall, Edith. Canary Girls and Stockpots. Workers' Educational Association (Luton branch), November 1977. ISBN 9780950556307 OCLC 4641086
- Nine women reveal the dangers of working in a munitions factory, Imperial War Museum, 31 January 2018
- The Canary Girls and the WWI Poisons that turned them Yellow by Messy Nessy Chic
- 30 incredible photos of the Canary Girls on the Vintage Everyday website