Venereal disease (VD) was endemic in the early twentieth century; estimates were that 1/10 people would contract syphilis at some point in their lives and perhaps 2-3 times as many more would contract gonorrhea. In spite of these startling facts, VD remained a taboo topic because of the stigma associated with these diseases, censored from the media and polite conversation.
However, in the 1930s, popular attitudes about venereal disease changed dramatically in the United States. Syphilis and gonorrhea became topics that people commonly encountered in their everyday life—in all types of media, at work and school, and in a multitude of public spaces. Newspapers, popular and professional periodicals, radio programs, and other media also covered the issue in greater numbers. Governments at all levels appropriated millions of dollars to help fight these illnesses.
Part of this nationwide campaign to "stamp out" VD was the creation of posters, infographics, films, and other visuals to help educate people to gain their support and participation in the expanding program to control these illnesses. These visuals help to tell the story of the trajectory of venereal disease in US culture over time, and in doing so speak to broader histories of sex, health, gender, class, race, politics, and popular culture.
The Venereal Disease Visual History Archive is a project to present and make available visual culture materials related to syphilis and gonorrhea from the first half of the twentieth century that are currently scattered among different digital and traditional archives. The primary focus is on sources related to the popular campaign to “stamp out” venereal disease in the 1930s and 1940s.
For a more detailed introduction to the topic, start at "VD Themes (Essays & Exhibits)." See "Search & Navigation Tips" for information on how best to browse and search through the archive.
"Prophylaxis Prevents Venereal Disease"
The images show exhibits from the 1939-40 New York World's Fair related to science, public health, and medicine.
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This poster urges all types of people to have a blood test for syphilis.
This map shows the distribution of state laws requiring premarital syphilis tests in 1944.
This film presents a newly developed Rapid Treatment Center, one of a large system of centers created during the war. It shows the treatment program…
This film puts the syphilis problem in the context of the war. It presents the effects of the illness, statistics about how it affects the war effort,…
This film was created to educate physicians about venereal disease. It explains symptoms and how to diagnose syphilis, general control principles,…
This film begins with the story of a young Italian-American couple whose baby is stillborn due to syphilis. It also tells the story of a young man who…
This silent film demonstrates the steps for chemical prophylaxis that men can use to prevent VD after having sex.