Vintage Public Health Posters That Helped People Take Smart Precautions During Past Crises

We sub­scribe to the the­o­ry that art saves lives even in the best of times.

In the midst of a major pub­lic health cri­sis, art takes a front line posi­tion, com­mu­ni­cat­ing best prac­tices to cit­i­zens with eye catch­ing, easy to under­stand graph­ics and a few well cho­sen words.

In March of 2020, less than 2 weeks after COVID-19 brought New York to its knees, Angeli­na Lip­pert, the Chief Cura­tor of Poster House, one of the city’s new­er muse­ums shared a blog post, con­sid­er­ing the ways in which the CDC’s basic hygiene rec­om­men­da­tions for help­ing stop the spread had been tout­ed to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

As she not­ed in a lec­ture on the his­to­ry of the poster as Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ment the fol­low­ing month, “mass pub­lic health action… is how we stopped tuber­cu­lo­sis, polio, and oth­er major dis­eases that we don’t even think of today:”

And a major part of erad­i­cat­ing them was edu­cat­ing the pub­lic. That’s real­ly what PSAs are—a means of inform­ing and teach­ing the pub­lic en masse. It goes back to that idea … of not hav­ing to seek out infor­ma­tion, but just being pre­sent­ed with it. Keep­ing the bar­ri­er for entry low means more peo­ple will see and absorb the infor­ma­tion.

The Office of War Infor­ma­tion and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia Soci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Blind­ness used an approach­able look­ing rac­coon to con­vince the pub­lic to wash hands in WWII.

Artist Sey­mour Nydorf swapped the rac­coon for a blonde wait­ress with glam­orous red nails in a series of six posters for the U.S. Pub­lic Health Ser­vice of the Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty Agency

Cough­ing and sneez­ing took posters into some­what gross­er ter­rain.

The New Zealand Depart­ment of Health’s 50s era poster shamed care­less sneez­ers into using a han­kie, and might well have giv­en those in their vicin­i­ty a per­sua­sive rea­son to bypass the buf­fet table.

Great Britain’s Cen­tral Coun­cil for Health Edu­ca­tion and Min­istry of Health col­lab­o­rat­ed with

Her Majesty’s Sta­tionery Office to teach the pub­lic some basic infec­tion math in WWII.

Children’s well­be­ing can be a very per­sua­sive tool. The WPA Fed­er­al Art Project was not play­ing in 1941 when it paired an image of a cheru­bic tot with stern warn­ings to par­ents and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers to curb their affec­tion­ate impuls­es, as well as the trans­mis­sion of tuber­cu­lo­sis.

The arrest­ing image packs more of a wal­lop than this earnest and far wordier, ear­ly 20s poster by the Nation­al Child Wel­fare Asso­ci­a­tion and the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Study and Pre­ven­tion of Tuber­cu­lo­sis.

Read Poster House Chief Cura­tor Angeli­na Lippert’s Brief His­to­ry of PSA Posters here.

Down­load the free anti-xeno­pho­bia PSAs Poster House com­mis­sioned from design­er Rachel Gin­grich ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Down­load Beau­ti­ful Free Posters Cel­e­brat­ing the Achieve­ments of Liv­ing Female STEM Lead­ers

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed Exclu­sive­ly to Poster Art Opens Its Doors in the U.S.: Enter the Poster House

Sal­vador Dalí Cre­ates a Chill­ing Anti-Vene­re­al Dis­ease Poster Dur­ing World War II

Down­load 2,000 Mag­nif­i­cent Turn-of-the-Cen­tu­ry Art Posters, Cour­tesy of the New York Pub­lic Library

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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