Today we have radio and TV to get public health messages out but back in the early to mid-20th century, most government agencies relied on posters. During the First World War, public health officials made a point of educating through posters and leaflets.
The correlation between soldiers, sexually transmitted diseases, morale and social downfall were common. One theme in this group of posters is the implicit, and at times explicit, belief that it is the woman who is at fault.
This poster may be the only government statement calling women “bags”, at least implicitly. She is representative of the treacherous woman, a cigarette smoking, makeup wearing woman who is guaranteed to give men syphilis or gonorrhoea. The fonts and color emphasize the word TROUBLE.
Not even the girl next door could be trusted (today we realize neither can the boy)! They also played on patriotism by having a sub-caption: “You can’t beat the Axis if you get VD”. Again there is the theme of loose women being the cause of the diseases.
A poster from 1942 has a cigarette smoking, hard bitten, sexy blonde in a bar and shows that that she is a deadly danger by associating her with the word “sniper”. Since there were still a lot of social taboos, there is no explicit connection between the woman and the diseases, just an implicit one.
Image: Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen
The French were often ahead of other areas in the world when it came to even discussing subjects like STDs, as is shown here in a poster from 1916. It shows the link between a soldier and a prostitute, death and hospital. The text 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.”
In the First World War, the social hygiene movement wanted to deal with STDs by promoting abstinence and morality over treatment or prevention with condoms. This 1918 poster suggests that it is not only a disease that will put you in chains for the rest of your life, but so too will “enslaving habits”, a euphemism for masturbation.
This Second World War poster uses humor to make its point. The moral, masculine sailor is stopping another from being tempted by the seductive lady in red. They add the notion that even though there may be treatment for disease, this “bad” behavior will be regretted.
This poster makes the point that STDs are a global problem, but some also think it uses red to subliminally bring to mind the “red menace” of communism. Of course it also stresses the responsibility for the man to protect himself.
A fun look back at how governments and the military have dealt with the issue of STDs in the past. The message of safety still resonates today though placing the blame on the woman does not.