Posts Tagged ‘health’

War on Whores

War on Whores

Collector’s Weekly is never dull. A few weeks ago it gave us an entertaining article about the art of the fairground shooting arcade target. Who would have thought those dismal little bits of tin, so hard to hit with a carefully unsighted airgun, could be so beautiful when their rusting, bullet-battered shapes are   treated as works of art?

In its latest edition CW serves up another dose of the unexpected, this time wartime posters from both the First and Second World Wars, exhorting servicemen to stay away from loose women.


CW had come across a 2014 book, Protect Yourself, by Ryan Mungia, featuring a collection of VD posters found at places like the US National Archives and the National Library of Medicine.  Mungia had been visiting the National Archives looking for photographs of wartime Honolulu when he chanced on a folder marked “VD posters”.


‘Inside,’ says Mungia, ‘I found a stash of 35mm slides of these posters, most of which ended up in the book. I guess you could say the subject chose me, since I didn’t set out to make a book on venereal disease, but became interested in the topic because of the graphic nature of the posters. The designs were really reminiscent of film noir or B-movie posters from the ’40s, those pulpy-style poster designs, and they also reminded me of the Works Progress Administration artwork, which I love.’


‘On any given day during World War I, there were approximately 18,000 men who were taken ill with VD,” Mungia explains. “So when we started gearing up for the next major war, the U.S. military launched a pretty aggressive propaganda campaign including posters, pamphlets, and films to try to curb those numbers and keep soldiers healthy and able to fight.’


Before the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics, syphillis and gonorrhoea were serious illnesses that could kill as could some of the treatments prescribed for them. According to Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), a German knight who wrote about his trials with syphilis and its treatment with mercury. Patients were shut in a “stew”, a small steam filled chamber, for up to thirty days on end, having first been smeared from head to toe with a mercury-based ointment. Many died, but it was mercury poisoning rather than syphillis that killed them.

stay away

Less extreme but no less dangerous methods of administering mercury to syphillitics was to use the liquid metal stirred into hot chocolate, although one doctor warned that chocolate was too risky. A genius whose ideas today would almost certainly find their way onto crowdfunding websites was the doctor who sold underpants coated on the inside with mercury ointment. These fascinating facts come from a book The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present by Peter Lewis Allen, which I thoroughly recommend.

Pre-sulfonamide Gonorrhoea treatments were scarcely less hazardous, utilising metallic compounds of arsenic, antimony, bismuth, gold, and mercury. Having become less of a threat since the invention of antiobiotics, resistant strains of Gonorrhoea have now emerged and some doctors warn it is now on the verge of becoming incurable.

wrath of god

But we digress. In its efforts to inform servicemen about sexual health, the US government first used advertisements created by the Works Progress Administration, mentioned by Mungia above. But these were easy to ignore, so they turned to comic book styles and realistic public service announcements.

Axis Agents

According to Mungia, ‘In the beginning, around 1941 or ’42, they hired a lot of artists through the WPA who had produced public-health posters a decade earlier,” says Mungia. “But there were several studies done to determine what kind of poster would be the most effective in delivering this message, and they concluded that people really responded to those which were more realistic and struck an emotional chord.


‘The WPA created beautiful posters that used a lot of bold shapes and colors, but they relied on symbolism. These studies showed that some guys were actually confused by the WPA-style posters. The military’s solution was to go to Madison Avenue and consult some successful ad men, and they had those guys produce VD posters. The style of the posters changed over the course of the war from bold and symbolic to more realistic, almost magazine-style advertisements.’

they are waiting



Although venereal diseases affect both men and women, and in general cannot be caught unless a member of one sex passes it to another, in these posters it is usually woman who is depicted as the seductive temptress (misogyny, of course, comes packaged with   Genesis) and sometimes even depicted as an agent of the enemy powers, a toxic handmaiden to Hitler and Hirohito.

Only one ambiguous image, perhaps not daring speak to its message out loud, seems to hint that men can catch VD from other men.


Turn off your mind, relax and float up to the Wellcome

Turn off your mind, relax and float up to the Wellcome

London was swinging long before the Sixties. At the start of the 19th century, the drawing rooms of Regency London were thronged with smart people dancing their wigs off after sniffing hits of dephlogisticated nitrous air, or nitrous oxide as it is nowadays known.

Hardly had the gas been discovered than it was being snorted by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who declared that it afforded him “more unmingled pleasure than I have ever before experienced”.

Humphrey Davy, who recommended it for use as an anaesthetic, described “a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by an highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute.”

“Laughing gas” parties were so much the rage that they were even satirised by cartoonists, as in this 1823 example from Thomas Rowlandson.


Two years before this cartoon appeared, English society had been shocked by a little-known translator of German texts, one Thomas de Quincey who burst on the literary scene with his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which contained some of the most brutal and brilliant prose ever written.

Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. G From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Siva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, at which the ibis and the crocodile trembled. I was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

De Quincey’s descriptions of the pains and pleasures of opium influenced writers from Poe and Baudelaire to Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Man With The Twisted Lip, is about a wealthy man driven to filthy opium dens by his addiction. The theme found expression also in art, as in this pair of oriental gouaches on rice paper from the Wellcome collection.


The success of De Quincey’s Confessions ensured that the fascination with chinoiserie and all things Egyptian and oriental would gain momentum. This watercolour of a Constantinople (Istanbul) bazaar was made by J F Lewis in the early 1840s.


Hookahs were a favourite subject for ‘orientalist’ painters, and soon replaced dephlogisticated nitrous air in the water pipes of the fashionable set. Byron’s publisher John Murray was often to be found, wrapped in a silk dressing gown, gurgling on his narguileh. By the middle of the century the hubble bubbles were still chortling away. Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar on his mushroom in 1865 is perhaps happily dreaming of two sorts of hallucinogens. Mervin Peake’s 1946 drawing has a rather phallic caterpillar, adding a link between psychedelic experience and sex that spoke more of his own time than Carroll’s.


As the nineteenth century grew old, the once innocent enthusiasm for things eastern acquired darker undertones. After the 1857 Indian Mutiny, things could never be the same. Queen Victoria’s glorious Kohinoor diamond, acquired in 1849 and literally the jewel in the crown of empire, has by the late sixties become a cursed moonstone, hunted by fanatical and vengeful natives who will murder to regain it. The theme recurs in Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four, who makes his fanatic a blow-pipe toting Andaman islander. (The Andamanese did not use blow pipes, and the story is one more undeserved stain on their character).

The opium pipe, if not the blow pipe, continued to claim victims in the upper echelons of English society. Conan Doyle’s The Man With The Twisted Lip saw light in 1891, and the opium dens were still going strong in the East End, every bit as squalid as they had always been. This engraving was made in the 1870s.


Drugs had the power to intoxicate the imagination as well as the body, and the tradition of Coleridge and de Quincey passed on through a long line of artists, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Dali, Manet, Gautier, Redon, Magritte. Aleister Crowley, as recorded in his Diary of a Drug Fiend, combined drugs and sex and orgies when he could get them. But he lacked rock and roll, and not until the sixties of our own era (well, I am old enough to remember the sixties), did the three great ingredients of the high life come together.

Through Timothy Leary by way of Aldous Huxley, the Beatles found a place where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies, and everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers that grow so incredibly high.

Blotting paper, little squares soaked in LSD were the tickets to Lucyland, postage stamp sized pieces that melted on the tongue. The blotting paper came in peforated sheets. Some were printed with miniature works of art, like these signed examples from the collection of psychedelic researcher Thomas Lyttle.



This note was originally written to flag the Wellcome Museum’s exhibition “High Society: the rich history of mind-altering drugs” in February, 2011. All the pictures came from the Wellcome