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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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?