World War II’s sensational venereal disease posters.
J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman first appeared in 1943, when he drew her in a poster for Westinghouse Electric’s internal War Production Coordinating Committee. Miller inadvertently created the most beloved character in the history of public service information: his bandanna-clad heroine—often misidentified as Rosie the Riveter, a separate creation of the War Advertising Council—has since been appropriated by innumerable causes as a symbol of solidarity, fortitude, and female empowerment. She’s ubiquitous among souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, and magnets. The “We Can Do It” woman survives in American culture as an emblem of all the social justice we want to see in World War II. But what became of her wicked stepsister, the “Bag of Trouble” girl?
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. Read More