World War II’s sensational venereal disease posters.
The “Bag of Trouble” girl appeared on her own poster in the same era—like her counterpart, she was beautiful and tough, with immaculate eyebrows and deep red lipstick, staring down her viewers with steely resolve. But the caption that surrounded her was more menacing than motivational: “She may be … a bag of TROUBLE.” Then, in smaller type, just in case you didn’t catch the drift: “Syphilis-Gonorrhea.”
If the “We Can Do It” woman represents World War II as the public wishes to remember it, then the “Bag of Trouble” girl represents the part that the public is eager to abandon. For that reason, the editor and archivist Ryan Mungia chose her for the cover of his new book, Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II—the first piece of a much larger upcoming project of Mungia’s, Shore Leave, which documents the seamier side of the WWII experience through vernacular photos and paper ephemera. Seventy years after D-Day and the liberation of France, it’s no longer credible to memorialize the war solely with the romanticized combat of Saving Private Ryan and platitudes of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” variety. The war didn’t just traumatize the country—it exposed and exacerbated already disconcerting facets of American society.
The posters scream for themselves. They were the product of antagonistic collaboration between the military, the Surgeon General’s office, and the War Advertising Council, a cabal of New York admen given the task of fine-tuning American propaganda. The near-schizophrenic variety of messages and graphics in this collection reflects the internal conflicts of the U.S. propaganda machine, which was trying to appease several different agendas simultaneously. Few of the posters in Protect Yourself are attributable to specific years, but the book makes it possible to trace multiple evolutions that unfolded during the war. The bold, abstract designs of the Work Projects Administration give way to the straightforward illustrative schemes of the WAC, which resemble advertisements from the pages of Fortune or the Saturday Evening Post. In the parade of captions, you can watch the morphing attitude toward sex education. What begin as concerns over public health—“Whom Have You Exposed To Syphilis? Tell Your Physician, They Should Be Examined; They May Need Treatment”—become manipulations of guilt and shame: “VD Can Be Cured But There’s No Medicine for REGRET.”
Mungia restored the posters from scans gathered at the National Archives, The National Library of Medicine, and the private collection of the graphic design historian Jim Heimann, who also contributes an introductory essay to the book. Many of these images have been bandied around the Internet for years, but they come to life on paper; the book affirms their role as lustrous and poisonous time capsules. Their twisted charisma comes not only from the shocking nature of the subject matter, but from the dissonance between message and medium. The posters are paragons of graphic design principle—but beneath their tidy exteriors are convulsions of pure lust and panic.
Propaganda craves the personification of an enemy for its goals. During World War II, the Axis powers were personified by Arthur Szyk’s grotesquely comic caricatures of Hitler and Hirohito, which stimulated contempt and hatred. Patriotism was personified by the sternly patriarchal figure of Uncle Sam, who impelled passersby to enlist, to donate, and to ration with one wave of his bony finger. The posters in Protect Yourself are cleverly organized by motivating theme to indicate the government’s restless search for an effective personification of sexual disease. They portrayed VD as a colleague of the Axis caricatures, and as the creeping specter of the grim reaper. They even made a series of posters in which the letters VD themselves are anthropomorphized, as if to invest a medical abbreviation with all the fear and ignominy once associated with Hester Prynne’s scarlet A. But none of these strategies was as arresting as the one that became the hallmark of the anti-VD campaign: the personification of sexual disease as the secret weapon of womankind.
The military insisted that VD was mainly a symptom of prostitution, resulting in multifarious depictions of “Ladies of the Night.” Over the course of the war, the posters expanded the threat to include “pick-ups,” “good-time girls,” and “amateurs.” The escalating suspicion climaxed with the most famous VD poster of all, which showed the face of a doe-eyed teenager emblazoned with the tagline: “She May Look Clean—BUT.” This was no longer a campaign about disease control. Its message was blatant: any woman who displayed an inkling of sexual desire was to be viewed as a walking sickness, an enemy of the state, and a direct threat to manhood.
The audience for the posters consisted of males, many barely out of high school, most of whom had never been exposed to sex education of any kind. “We saw the most horrific film on the dangers of catching VD that you could imagine,” the pilot officer Ron Pottinger remembered in his memoir, A Soldier in the Cockpit. “Enough to put you off any thoughts about women for the duration, if not for life!”
There were films, too, such as Know For Sure (1941) and USS VD: Ship of Shame (1942), whose graphic depictions of diseased genitalia and persistent warnings of blindness, paralysis, and death left a bigger impression on most young servicemen than the accompanying posters. But seventy years later, the films come off as stilted and corny while the posters remain potent. While the films addressed the procedures of venereal disease, the posters diagrammed a diseased psychology. They disseminated misogyny, ignorance, and shame, fostering attitudes that took root in postwar culture, when all those servicemen returned home to start nuclear families with the women they had only recently been encouraged to spurn.
Like many of the works in Protect Yourself, the “Bag of Trouble” poster was signed only with a single name, “Christian,” one of several mononymous propaganda artists lost to history. It’s unlikely that that he—or maybe she, as artists like Dorothy Darling Fellnagel were responsible for some of the VD posters—intended the figure as anything more than another image of the tarnished female. But these posters contain so much that was unintended.
Contemporary viewers tend to see the “Bag of Trouble” girl as an icon of misogyny, but she becomes more interesting and ambiguous when presented without caption, which is how she appears on the cover of Protect Yourself. Unlike some of the other women in the posters, she doesn’t automatically read as the walking personification of disease. She is not the skull-faced specter of death in a dress, nor is she the innocent “booby trap” so beloved by the propagandists. Hers is not a ruined face but one of cynical wisdom. She looks out from the cover as if she can see past all the assumptions of her viewers, past the wreckage the war, to the darker outcomes of the machinery that made her.
Though the “Bag of Trouble” girl might never outgrow her infamy, younger generations will always find new ways to redefine old symbols. There’s an Etsy store currently selling buttons that use that face with a proud twist on the old caption: “Nothing But … A Bag of Trouble.” “I got this for my daughter and she loves it,” wrote one satisfied buyer in a review. “She collects buttons and says it’s one of her favorites.”
Protect Yourself ends with an unknown sailor’s souvenir portrait, one of only a few photographs in the collection. (Mungia is saving most of his photographic evidence for Shore Leave.) It shows a scrawny, sinewy man, his hands on his hips, posing shirtless in front of a feebly painted tropical backdrop. His arms are covered in tattoos, and a huge three-masted schooner is inked across his bony breastplate. He can’t be more than twenty. He looks hungrily at the camera with goofy, uncaged eyes, baring just a sliver of teeth, as if he’s waiting for the punch line to some incredibly lascivious but very dumb joke. It is an expression as astonishing and inscrutable as the one worn by the woman on the cover of the book. Between those two faces are the beginnings and endings of a thousand untold war stories.
Sam Sweet’s new book is All Night Menu, a collection of lost heroes and miniature histories of Los Angeles.