Venereal Disease Visual History Archive

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Pick-ups & Prostitutes

"First 2,000,000 Selectees Blood Tested for Syphilis"

Map detailing Selective Service

syphilis tests results (1944)

As the US mobilized for war there was increased concern about protecting servicemen from venereal disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea had been the number one causes of lost man-hours during World War I, and so concerns about VD were tied to those about military strength in the 1940s.

Adding to these concerns were new statistics that painted a grim picture of the health of American men. Along with the draft came the largest testing program in US history; every man who was drafted or volunteered for military service was tested for syphilis (and in some cases gonorrhea). The results were disconcerting. Even with the efforts to root out these illnesses during the late 1930s, syphilis in particular remained epidemic in parts of the deep South and Southwest.

More materials than ever were created by the government, the military, and voluntary organizations like the ASHA to reach servicemen. One reoccurring message was the danger of women, whether they were commercial prostitutes or “pick-ups,” women servicemen met at dances, bars, diners, or on the street. As seen to the right, women are ominously shown smoking in shadowy alleys or waiting in dark bars.

Comics, films, and posters undermined the idea that servicemen could tell “good” girls from “bad” ones in order to avoid contracting disease and instead emphasized that they should assume any (female) sexual partner had venereal disease. Thus, sexual women, whether professionals or “amateurs,” were depicted as the source of illness. Sometimes the diseased women appeared attractive and inviting, sometimes gruesome and unappealing, sometimes an eerie combination.