Thursday January 20, 2005

Hygiene Posters

Check out this collection of early 20th century hygiene posters, searchable by category and date, at the University of Minnesota.  The earlier ones are generally funnier than the later ones, I think, because of the odd mixture of frankness and circumspection.  Some favorites:

  • Weirdly sex-positive: "What Sex Brings to the Girl" ("It is the sex or creative impulse which inspires her warmth of affection, her intensity of purpose, her desire to devote herself to the welfare of humanity.")
  • But don't forget abstinence: "Beware of Chance Acquaintances"  ("'Pick-up' acquaintances often take girls autoriding, to cafès, and to theatres with the intention of leading them into sex relations.  Disease or child-birth may follow."  Or the disease of child-birth!)
  • The importance of proper dance posture: "Danger in Familiarities" ("Conventions are the fences society has built to protect you and the race."  The race?)
  • Avoiding those omnipresent STDs: "VENEREAL DISEASE COVERS THE EARTH" (Say...she's kinda hot.  What are they advertising again?)

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I'm not so sure about that one you classify as "weirdly sex-positive"; I suspect that they're talking about sex in the sense of dimorphism rather than sex in the sense of nookie. Or rather, they're talking about stereotypically gendered traits and attributing them to biological sex. But at least they do redeem themselves (from a feminist perspective) with the poster on "Worth-While Lives":

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Jan 20, 2005 3:12:43 PM

I thought about that intrepretation while I was posting, but I don't think that's what they mean. The phrase "the sex or creative impulse" seems to equate "the sex impulse" and "the creative impulse", and I don't think that can be interpreted to mean "femaleness in the abstract". I think they really did mean the desire to have sex and procreate.

It's not so much that it's a surprising or unprecedented sentiment—it's pretty much what "be fruitful and multiply" means, after all—it just sounds weird juxtaposed with all the "don't hold hands for too long or YOUR BABIES WILL BE BLINDED BY SYPHILIS!" messages.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 20, 2005 7:03:38 PM

Actually, it's gonorrhea (or "gonorrhoea" if you prefer) that can cause blindness in babies.

Just doin' my part for the early 21st century public health movement. :)

Posted by: Terminal Student at Jan 21, 2005 10:08:44 AM

I see your point about "the sex or creative impulse." But the 'femaleness in the abstract' reading seems to work better with the first part of the poster: "Sex endows the girl with beauty of body, vivacity, and charm of manner." Surely they can't be saying that it's sexual activity that makes girls beautiful? But perhaps they're changing what they mean by "sex" halfway through.

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Jan 21, 2005 10:38:02 AM

There seems to be a series of "weirdly sex-positive" posters. See also "The Spirited Horse and the Sex Impulse": .

Posted by: chris waigl at Jan 23, 2005 5:09:48 AM

The next two posters (, do seem to imply (to me) that there are using the word "sex" to refer some kind of biological impulse to act in a particular (gender sterotyped) way. It probably made perfect sense in the 1920s. The references to "the race" leave a rather unpleasant taste. I wonder what the official lines of the US Public Health Service and the American Social Hygiene Association on inter-racial marriage were. s "No miscegenation here", I suspect.

(When did "sex" take on its primary current meaning of "sexual intercourse" as opposed to "gender"?)

Posted by: Paul at Jan 25, 2005 9:15:54 AM

I see the references to the sex impulse as implying what the boy can accomplish if he doesn't give in to the sex impulse and instead channels that energy into clean outdoor living. Think of athletes not having sex before the big game.

Posted by: Qov at Jan 27, 2005 10:33:20 AM

Does sex really bring, a girl, desire to devote herself to the welfare of humanity? Isn't it weird to cailm?

Posted by: Kane at Feb 24, 2006 12:07:33 PM