Othelia Winger was only doing what young women her age have done for generations: trying out different shades of lipstick. Through a combination of unfortunate circumstances, her cosmetic choice on one November day in 1930 would prove deadly.
Tillie was planning to attend a party near her family’s farm in the Town of Bern, just northwest of the city of Wausau, Wisconsin. As she searched her handbag for some lipstick, she noticed a pack of lipstick samples she picked up at a local merchant. The pack was designed like an oversized book of matches, with the soft tip of each stick containing lipstick. She thought it would be fun to try a new shade, so she took out a sample, moistened her lips and applied the rouge.
The first signs of trouble came 30 minutes later as Tillie was ready to leave for the party. She complained to her mother Ida that her lips were “strangely hot” and pulsating with pain. Ida told her daughter it was probably due to chapped lips. Some cold cream at bed time would most likely cure the discomfort. Ida was not aware her daughter had applied the sample lipstick, and Tillie did not make the connection in time to inform her mother.
Tillie’s condition turned grave very quickly. Within a few minutes, her lips became very swollen and the pain was unbearable. A frantic Ida phoned for a doctor. The physician could see that Tillie’s mouth was infected, but he could not determine the source. Shortly, the swelling spread into Tillie’s throat and she developed a fever of 106 degrees. “In another hour she was in delirium, crying out that she was on fire and felt as though she was going to burst,” The Milwaukee Sentinel later wrote. “Her throat and lungs seemed to her to be burning up and it was difficult for her to breathe.”
Medical intervention failed to stem the rampaging infection. Young Tillie suffered enormously for two days, then succumbed to the massive infection on November 5. Her family was stunned and the doctor had no answers. How could a healthy 18-year-old be overcome and die so quickly? Marathon County health officials quickly summoned Dr. Edward L. Miloslavich, Milwaukee County pathologist and a famed criminologist.
During his investigation, Dr. Miloslavich found the packet of paper-match lipstick samples in Tillie’s bedroom. He immediately suspected them as the cause of the infection, but said nothing until he ran some tests. He determined that Tillie died of a hemolytic streptococci infection, based on pus taken from her lips and blood from her spleen. An abrasion on her lips provided the conduit for the strep bacteria, which quickly spread to the mouth, throat and lungs. Miloslavich determined the lipstick samples were contaminated with strep. He said the sample pack, with open sides like a matchbook, was vulnerable to contaminants in the environment. Antibiotics to treat strep infections would not become widely available until after World War II.
At the time of her tragic death, Tillie was studying to be a teacher at the Marathon County Normal School. Born on October 18, 1912, she was one of six children born to Louis and Ida Winger. The Winger family originated in Switzerland, coming to America in the mid-1880s, just before Louis Winger’s birth. Christian Winger and his wife Elizabeth established a 40-acre farm in the Town of Bern, Marathon County. Louis Winger established his 120-acre farmstead just south of his father’s property in the Town of Bern. Louis and Ida eventually left Wisconsin and moved to the state of Oregon, living in Portland and later, Medford.
This tragedy occurred in the days before personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits were common, so we don’t know if the widespread publicity of Tillie’s death led to changes in how cosmetics were marketed. Searches of newspaper databases in the following decades turned up no mentions of “paper-match lipstick,” so perhaps this type of sample was discontinued. So very sad that a young woman died simply for trying to look nice for a party.
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