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The Unseen Warriors: Women of the Bethlehem Loading Plant

aerial of bethlehem loading new castle de

World War I ushered in an era of unprecedented change, particularly on the home front. As men were called to the battlefields, women were summoned to factories, becoming the backbone of the domestic war effort. The Bethlehem Loading Plant in New Castle serves as an emblematic case of this transformation.

A Community Responds to War

Built swiftly to meet a sudden and insatiable demand for artillery ammunition, the Bethlehem Loading Plant played a crucial role in the war effort. Women and older men were left to bear the home front responsibilities, filling factories and offices. In New Castle, the story was no different.

With rapid growth and swelling demands for munitions, worker housing was scarce. The community rallied to provide shelter, with churches offering refuge. The “parish house,” as reported by the ‘News Journal,’ became a haven for fifty girls employed at the plant.

The Canary Girls: A Symbol of Sacrifice

Original caption: “Girls loading point-detonating fuses for high-explosive shell in body-machining department of loading plant.” from America’s Munitions 1917-1918, by Benedict Crowell (1920).

Among the most evocative images of women’s involvement in the war effort are those of the Canary Girls. This moniker stems from the distinctive yellow discoloration of their tongues caused by exposure to tetryl, a chemical used in detonators.

Only two American companies, including Bethlehem Loading Co., manufactured tetryl. The women who worked with this chemical handled it with bare hands or inadequate protection, resulting in discoloration of the skin and more troubling symptoms like headaches, dizziness, and nausea.

One of the workers, Frances Haut, recalled the “Canary Cottage” near Witt’s Bakery on Delaware St. This rooming house was named not for its color but for the yellowed tongues of the women working in the plant.

More Than Cosmetic: A Lasting Legacy

The yellowing of the tongue was not just a surface issue but a manifestation of potential health problems. Prolonged exposure to tetryl could result in liver and kidney damage. The lack of understanding of these risks often led to unsafe working conditions.

However, these women, known as munitionettes, bore the risks with resilience and determination. They were a symbol of the sacrifices made for a greater cause.

As time progressed, a better understanding of the hazardous effects of tetryl prompted improvements in handling procedures and protective measures. But the legacy of the Canary Girls and the munitionettes of Bethlehem Loading Plant endures as a testament to the vital role women played in a time of global crisis.

Frances Sheridan (later Haut), 1922. Artillery shells assembled, ready to be loaded and shipped.

The women of the Bethlehem Loading Plant stand as a poignant reminder of the broader societal shifts and the spirit of community cooperation that marked the World War I era. Their sacrifices, dedication, and resilience have left an indelible mark on history, cementing their place as unseen warriors in a conflict that changed the world.

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