40 Eye-Opening Vintage Public Health Posters From The 1940s

Published March 16, 2016
Updated November 6, 2019

These vintage posters come from a time when syphilis was rampant, and people were expected to eat their eggs and cheese every day.

If you’re going to invoke hyperbole, it might as well be in the name of public health — at least that was the logic of public health workers in the early-to-mid 20th century. Reminiscent of propaganda posters, these occasionally (unintentionally) funny vintage posters actually made quite an impact on everything from slowing the spread of infectious disease, to bringing home the importance of vaccinations:

Vintage Health Posters Syphilis Crippler Copy
Before the widespread use of antibiotics, syphilis plagued the world for centuries. Starting in the 1930s, public health posters promoting the prevention and early detection of the STD became widespread.

Vintage Health Posters Shame Too Long
Campaigns sought to achieve early detection — in part by downplaying the shame of contracting the disease.

Vintage Health Posters Children Dinosaurs
Passage of the disease from mother to child was very common, making it vital to educate the public on the risk it posed to children — as well as the fact that a cure had been found in penicillin (albeit too late for the dinosaurs, apparently).

Vintage Health Posters Tuberculosis March
Tuberculosis is another highly contagious bacterial disease spread through the air — apparently by breathing, coughing, laughing, or speaking.

Vintage Health Posters Swim Shark
Swimming is a great exercise that can keep you healthy if done in sanitary pools. It may also be an important skill in escaping the pneumonia shark.

Vintage Health Posters Points Hurdles
Tuberculosis posters encouraging testing were everywhere.

Vintage Health Posters Grades Together
Some TB campaigns even linked good health with good grades.

Vintage Health Posters Flower Obey
The well-meaning and colorful posters could be visually confusing, though; the imagery in the two shown here has nothing to do with prevention or treatment of the disease.

Vintage Health Posters Expecting Breastfeeding
The proper health of expectant mothers and infants were less understood subjects than they are today.

Vintage Health Posters Vaccination Lifelong
Education on vaccinations and children’s health and safety became very import topics of the public health system.

Vintage Health Posters Nurtured Firecrackers
Many public health educators used ridicule and fear to shame parents into proper child rearing habits, such as not letting them play with firecrackers...

Vintage Health Posters Milk Eat
...or encouraging the consumption of dairy products.

Vintage Health Posters Fruit Balanced
Some of the advice was at least a little better than others, such as telling people to eat a balanced diet.

Vintage Health Posters John Vision
Public health activists also championed regular vision tests...

Vintage Health Posters Clean Swan
...as well as the connection between hygiene and health.

Vintage Health Posters Liberty Fight
Early public health posters presented cancer as a nemesis to be fought — a trend you still see today.

Vintage Health Posters Early Women
The posters also emphasized that early detection was critical to increasing the chances of survival.

Vintage Health Posters Kills Three
The posters also emphasized that while often terminal, there were multiple treatment options available, and that a cancer diagnosis did not always mean a death sentence.

Vintage Health Posters Bite Scratch
With a public generally uninformed about infection-related risks, public health workers underscored the dangers of everything — from dog bites to injuries in the work place.

Vintage Health Posters Sanitary Diptheria
Public education of toxoids such as the tetanus shot (as well as greatly improved home sanitation) also directly led to the decrease of fatal infections, such as diphtheria.

All posters here can be found in The Library of Congress Print and Photograph Catalog.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kelly, Erin. "40 Eye-Opening Vintage Public Health Posters From The 1940s." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 16, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-public-health-posters. Accessed May 22, 2024.