By Ginny A. Roth ~
Before the age of social media, posters were a primary form of visual communication meant to catch the public’s eye even if just for a fleeting moment. Like today’s tweets, posters have limited amount of room for text and must effectively convey a concise message to an audience that does not have the time or attention span to read while on the go. And like tweets, posters have the added benefit of allowing for a dominant image to help convey a message in visual form.
Like any piece of propaganda, it [the poster] is designed to persuade the viewer to do something – either to buy the product advertised or in the case of the public health poster, to modify or eliminate destructive habits… At the very least, it must make us stop, if only for a few seconds, to absorb its message – a message that typically takes the form of a forceful image accompanied by hard-hitting words.
— World Health Organization, “Public Health Campaigns: Getting the Message Across,” 2009
Unlike a tweet, a poster can be placed in high-traffic public places to reinforce its message as people pass it every day, increasing the likelihood of recall and comprehension. When posted in multiple locations, and targeted to specific populations, posters have the advantage of serving as repeated reminders of a message and are therefore a powerful medium to use during epidemics.
Posters have long been a perfect fit for public health messages meant to help prevent the spread of disease. These messages are bolstered by producing posters in mass quantities and distributing them in selected locations where they are needed most.
Posters created for the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 informed the public that the disease was spread by “droplets sprayed by nose and throat,” and stressed the importance of occupying only places that were well-ventilated, and avoiding contact with anyone who coughed or sneezed.
The first informational poster here, “Influenza Frequently Complicated with Pneumonia,” 1918, uses large text to emphasize words meant to catch the viewer’s eye, “influenza” and “pneumonia,” while the remaining text provides instructions to “keep Chicago the healthiest city in the world.” The poster, “To Prevent Influenza,” 1918, features a prominent picture of a Red Cross nurse wearing a face mask that covers her nose and mouth. Next to the image is the word “influenza,” using a larger type than the remaining text.
Tuberculosis, an infectious disease affecting the lungs, and described in a 2018 article in The Lancet as, “the number one cause of death from infectious disease globally,” saw a wide-variety of posters distributed with imagery meant to elicit an emotional or fearful response from the viewer, therefore leaving a lasting impression that would lead to good health hygiene.
The French poster here created in 1918 by the American Tuberculosis Preservation Commission in France features a menacing illustration of a human hand choking a cobra, while venom drips from the snake’s open mouth. The poster warns that tuberculosis must be battled as the most harmful of reptiles. The poster, “Protect Them from Tuberculosis,” created in the United States in 1930 prominently features a baby, creating an emotional appeal to the viewer to protect a vulnerable population from the deadly disease.
In 1981 the first known cases of AIDS were reported in the United States. The disease swiftly circled the globe, leaving in its wake a profound sense of fear and negative social stigma among those who were diagnosed with AIDS. A lack of knowledge about the disease coupled with the fact that there was no cure, lead to myths and misinformation being spread, which served to propagate public panic and bigotry amidst a rapidly increasing number of AIDS-related deaths. No one knew what caused the disease, how to prevent it, or if they were immune.
Targeted posters for the gay community and IV drug users, two of the highest risk populations, became prevalent in the 1980s as more was discovered about how the disease was spread. Posters educated individuals on how to protect themselves without stifling or discriminating against their lifestyles.
The first poster, “Don’t Share Needles,” does not preach to drug users to stop using needles, but rather instructs not to share them. The skull and crossbones at the top of the syringe suggests dire consequences if risky behavior continues. The poster, “Men of the 90’s,” promotes the use of condoms while visually celebrating the gay lifestyle.
Posters were also aimed at the general public to debunk myths about how the disease was spread. A common myth in the early days of the AIDS crisis was that the disease could be spread by touching or being in the same room as an AIDS patient. The poster, “I Have AIDS, Please Hug Me,” seeks to discredit this notion by showing a child’s self-portrait drawn in crayon stating “I have AIDS.” The child’s arms are outstretched asking for a hug, and unequivocally adding, “I can’t make you sick.”
West African Ebola
Between 2014 and 2016 West African Ebola claimed the lives of over 11,000 people in 10 countries, in what became the largest Ebola virus epidemic in history. A series of public health posters were created during the outbreak meant to dispel rumors about how the disease was spread. The posters below were created as part of a campaign to show support for health-workers and Doctors Without Borders who risked their lives to treat patients of the deadly disease.
Supported by the Collection Development Guidelines of the NLM, my colleagues and I are currently collecting material related to COVID-19, with a particular focus on the public health response to the disease in the United States. As curator of the Prints & Photographs program, I am pleased to have found an abundance of military response-related COVID-19 photographs available for download online. I am also collecting Maryland county-specific signs posted throughout the local area with messages to the community about staying home.
Public safety-themed art is also of great value to the collection because of the unique imagery created by artists and the breadth of relatable topics covered that are COVID-19 specific, such as warnings not to hoard toilet paper, reminders to maintain social distancing guidelines, and messages that reinforce the importance of wearing a mask inside public places. One such website that promotes COVID-19-related artwork and from which NLM will be collecting is erasecovid.com. Featured artwork raises awareness about COVID-19 not just to the general public, but to specific segments of the population including kids and healthcare workers.
NLM will continue to develop, review, describe, and add content related to COVID-19 and welcomes recommendations for additional content to include in its collections.
Below is a selection of disease-prevention posters from the Images from the History of Medicine in NLM Digital Collections.
Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.
I love to see these posters from your collection. I’m always impressed by the messaging and the creative use of images.
Thanks so much for your comment. We are very happy to hear that you enjoy seeing the posters in our historical collection. Enjoy your summer and stay safe!