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Venereal Disease

Along with tuberculosis, progressive reformers and social critics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries identified venereal disease as the quintessential product of a series of transformations in American life in the post-Civil War years including the rapid growth of cities, the increase in immigration, and the changing nature of the family. As historian Allan Brandt argues, venereal disease provided a means of organizing and explaining many social dilemmas that Progressivism sought to address. The tenets of Victorian respectability, however, prohibited open dialogue about the effects of venereal disease on American society. Progressive physicians suggested that lifting the veil of silence would have an immediate ameliorative impact on the incidence of the disease.

True to their faith in education and publicity as radical forces of reform, authorities during the First World War employed posters to motivate and inform the general public and soldiery. Designed to communicate, invite action, and build consensus, posters became an effective means for targeting venereal disease as a major threat to both military efficiency and personal health. Public health educators used films, lectures, pamphlets, and demonstrations, but posters were particularly well suited for campaigns designed to appeal to a broad range of servicemen and the general public. Visual impressions created by posters could communicate messages more quickly, more often, and more cheaply.

Emphasizing the relationship between patriotism, morality, health preservation, and disease prevention, images of the infected soldier and disease-carrying prostitute in posters during the First and Second World Wars came to symbolize both moral failure and social decay. The posters in this section of the exhibit use images of "loose" women, patriotic iconography, and frightening symbols to grab the attention of the viewer and inspire behavior modification. These images not only reflected attitudes, values, and beliefs about the causes and consequences of venereal disease but also affected responses to the problem.


Predominantly tan or discolored white poster with red and black lettering. Visual images are illustrations of a soldier's head, a soldier embracing a woman, a man sitting on a bench in front of a hospital, and a skull and crossbones. Text below title states that the country needs the soldier to have all his strength and urges him to resist the seductions of the street lest he contract a disease as dangerous as the war itself and die in vain, without honor. Lithographer information in lower right corner.As with tuberculosis posters, French artists led the way in creating a new style for posters addressing the problem of venereal disease. In this poster by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, published in France in 1916, the illustrations of the woman and man embracing, followed by the physically debilitated soldier on his hospital bed, make the message implicit. Due to prevailing taboos, no mention of syphilis or gonorrhea is made, but the words on the tombstone make a connection between morality and patriotism. The message reads: "Soldier, the country counts on you-keep healthy. Resist the temptation of the street where a sickness as dangerous as the war awaits you… It carries its victims to decay and death, without honor, without happiness. . ." The poster includes two additional images common in venereal disease campaigns. First, the woman is invariably presented as the cause of the problem, frequently personifying the venereal disease itself. Second, death images such as the skull and cross-bones are used as powerful and fearful warning symbols.


Caricature of the bottom half-length of a soldier with metal rings fastened about the ankles and attached by chain to large, heavy balls on which are written, Venereal Disease, and Enslaving Habits.During the First World War, a tension developed between "social hygiene" reformers, who condemned illicit sexual behavior and emphasized education as the key to fighting venereal diseases, and more pragmatic medical officers who promoted prophylactic stations for the treatment of venereal diseases on military bases. This 1918 poster illustrates a common message promoted by social hygienists, who worked vigorously to close down red-light districts in American cities and to educate soldiers about refraining from sexual activity. The image equates venereal disease and "enslaving habits" (such as masturbation) with a loss of personal and political freedom, asking the viewing soldier whether they will choose to be free or chained by the consequences of sexual indiscretion. This strategy was part of a larger campaign to define a male sex role that was at once powerful and virile yet pure and virginal by combining a high sense of moralism with a confident masculinity.


White poster with black and red lettering. Title at top of poster. Visual image is an illustration of one sailor, eager to speak to a woman on a street, being restrained by another sailor. Caption below illustration. Publisher information at bottom of poster.Responsible masculinity was also a common theme during the Second World War. This illustration of a sailor preventing his friend from pursuing a buxom blonde woman in the background deals with a serious issue in a humorous though chauvinistic manner. Contrasting the image of the woman as sexual temptress with the image of the masculine but moral soldier, the message avoids overtly addressing his sexual behavior by suggesting that, "A sailor doesn't have to prove he's a man!" The urban setting suggests this poster addresses concerns about wayward sailors during shore leave. The poster carries an additional message that, "There's no medicine for regret," which suggests that, while the venereal disease could be effectively treated, the feeling of regret for reckless behavior could not be easily alleviated.


Black and white poster. Title Sex exposure without prophylaxis prophylaxis dominates poster. Final title phrase actually reads 'prophylaxis' but the 'phyl' is in very light print and the hyphen is superimposed on 'phyl', as if it has been crossed out. Caption and publisher information near bottom of poster.Recognizing the limits of sex and moral education in generating self-restraint in soldiers, medical officers during the Second World War more openly promoted prophylaxis-in the form of both condom distribution and chemical treatment for potential exposure to venereal disease. While critics suggested that anti-venereal disease campaigns should emphasize proper sexual behavior, this poster from the Army Air Forces Training Command in 1944 indicates an official understanding that within the wartime military most men would seek and find sex during their tenures. As a result, the armed forces established an efficient and practical program for treatment following possible exposure. This poster also uses a common strategy of equating venereal disease with helping the enemy, in this case suggesting that the failure to seek prophylaxis after sex was essentially a "pro-axis" decision to help the alliance between Japan, Italy, and Germany.


While posters generally made prophylaxis the soldier's responsibility, women were invariably represented as the cause of the venereal disease problem. The soldier or sailor was admonished to be continually on his guard against the evil she represented. The posters below target a prevalent theme in the social hygiene movement dating back to the early twentieth century-the threat of "loose women" and prostitutes.

Multicolor poster with white lettering, depicting a woman standing outside a bar or dance hall. The woman has blond hair and wears a short-sleeved steel blue dress, pink bracelet, and blue ring. She has a dark red purse tucked between her arm and body, freeing up her hands to hold matches and light the cigarette dangling from her mouth. Her attractive features are hardened by her eyebrows coming together, as in anger, and a slight snarl on her lips. Initial title words at top of poster, remainder overlap woman's midsection. Artist's name in lower right corner. VDgraphic-25 appears in lower left corner.Posters associating women with venereal disease frequently appealed to the viewing soldier by using illustrations of attractive or available women. In this 1942 poster by Feree, a striking blonde woman lights up a cigarette in front of a bar. Standing alone, the image does not necessarily communicate a negative message. The headline, however, makes it clear that this is a warning-this is not just any woman, she is a dangerous threat, indicated by the military-inspired epithet "Juke Joint Sniper." In this poster and many others, the "pick up girl" is labeled as the source of syphilis and gonorrhea. Reflecting the persistence of sexual taboos, however, the association is made without being overly explicit.


Multicolor poster with red and white lettering. Initial title phrase at top of poster. Visual image is an illustration of a woman looking over her shoulder while smoking a cigarette. Remaining title phrase and caption superimposed near bottom of illustration.This 1940 poster uses the same technique of featuring the heavily made-up, cigarette-smoking woman as venereal disease carrier. Appealing to the soldier's interest in the eye-catching woman, the headline playfully warns "She may be.. a bag of TROUBLE." The contrasts in color, font size, and capitalization draw the viewer's attention to the word "trouble" in an attempt to create an association between the word and the image. Below the warning, the inclusion of the words "syphilis-gonorrhea" further suggest to the viewer that this is not an appealing woman but a treacherous menace.


Predominantly red poster with yellow lettering. Initial title phrase at top of poster. Visual image is an illustration of a woman leaning against the wall of a building and smoking a cigarette. Remaining title phrase superimposed on lower portion of illustration. Publisher information at bottom of poster.This 1940 Charles Casa illustration of a prostitute leaning against a brick wall on a deserted street corner uses boldly contrasting colors to accent its message. The title, "Easy to get," refers to both the woman and the disease. The contrast of yellow on red background and the suggestiveness of the image and text are both used to catch the attention of the viewer while ultimately challenging the soldiers' correlation between sexually available women and good times.


Predominantly green poster with white lettering. Title at top of poster. Visual image is an illustration of a woman, dressed in red, standing with one hand on her head and one hand on her hips. An illustration of the earth is in the background. Caption and note near bottom of poster.Also from 1940, this poster extends the warning to soldiers by identifying venereal disease as a global problem. The glamorous woman in the illustration, posing in a low-cut red dress, is set against a shadowed globe in the background. This poster might also be adopting the language of anti-Communism and borrowing the color of the "red menace." The headline warns, "Venereal disease covers the earth," and the caption at the bottom reiterates another message seen in some of the posters discussed above: the responsibility of the soldier in protecting himself.


 this poster features an apparently average and conservatively dressed woman who might also pose a threat. Featured in the poster is the warning to all servicemen that 'She May Look Clean–But pick-ups, 'good-time girls' and prostitutes spread syphilis and gonorrhea. Publisher information at bottom of poster.This poster warned that even the perfect girl-next-door could not be trusted. In contrast to the cigarette-smoking, heavily made-up women in posters warning against exposure to prostitutes, this poster features an apparently average and conservatively dressed woman who might also pose a threat. Featured in the poster is the warning to all servicemen that "She May Look Clean -- But pick-ups, good-time girls and prostitutes" could be possible carriers of infection. The underlying caption uses the persistent tactic of appealing to the soldier's sense of patriotism in urging them to protect themselves for the sake of the country: suggesting that, "You can't beat the Axis if you get VD."



Infectious Disease: Introduction < Tuberculosis < Venereal Disease > Immunization > Eradication