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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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