Today, they seem crude, sexist, even threatening. But, in an age before TV and the internet, how could health services get their messages across to the public? By using graphic media that soldiers, refugees and civilians alike would be aware of: lurid visual styles taken from comics, film posters and the covers of popular crime novels.
The last century was the golden age of public health posters. In the early 1900s, infectious diseases like cholera, influenza and tuberculosis were great scourges. Public health posters reflected popular fears, featuring Death in all his guises. The devastating effects of polio on children, for example, was represented by Death holding a little girl’s legs.
With two World Wars, massive refugee movements and unsanitary conditions among most of the world’s populations, it’s not surprising that even posters directed at civilians were militaristic in nature: FIGHT TUBERCULOSIS … OBEY THE RULES OF HEALTH …
And the military themselves were massive providers of health posters directed at soldiers in the field. Disease was as much of an enemy as the soldier in the trench opposite. In the first year of WWI, some 20,000 British troops suffered from infected sores leading to gangrene. Known as ‘trench foot’, it often resulted in amputation.
Then there was venereal disease. During WWI, 18,000 US soldiers were treated for VD every day. Only the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 accounted for more soldiers taken out of the front line. So, in the early days of the Second World War, the US War Department embarked on a massive propaganda campaign aimed at preventing VD in its millions of male soldiers.
This resulted in some of the most bizarre health posters ever published. They often featured sultry women in provocative poses. These were the promiscuous sources of disease, almost a Fifth Column of the enemy:
SHE MAY LOOK CLEAN – BUT …
It was only after the Second World War that antibiotics and vaccines came into widespread use. As infectious diseases became controllable and public health campaigns became more effective, so the need for dramatic posters died out.
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