Public health messaging can be a delicate task. The right poster or TV bit will grab a person’s attention and spur them to change their behavior. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, in an effort to get American artists back to work in a way that benefited the rest of the nation too, the government commissioned hundreds of posters for a variety of causes, including public health messaging.
The posters were created under a program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed over 8.5 million people. Beyond employing those who designed posters, of which there are 2,000 known examples, the WPA provided lots of construction-related jobs building roads and parks.
It is estimated that the WPA poster division printed about 2 million posters, most of which were subsequently lost or destroyed. Of the remaining originals, the Library of Congress keeps the largest collection of these posters, which include a variety of PSAs covering topics ranging from warnings about dog bites to encouraging vaccinations. One poster shows a man tossing dice with the phrase, “Don’t gamble with syphilis—Consult health authorities.”
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