Public Health Campaigns are Nothing New

In 1896, in a bout of reformist zeal, New York City passed anti-spitting laws. As one can see from the image, spitting could convey any number of communicable diseases and was an especial concern in the new subways and on the old sidewalks. The biggest enemy listed here is tuberculosis, or “consumption,” also known at the time as “the White Plague.” This was taken so seriously spitting in a subway car carried a maximum penalty of a year in prison along with a possible $500 fine. These draconian measures proved ineffective if measured by warrants issued.

Most of these injunctions against spitting were in the form of signs, some of which survive today. This is a rarer or at least more easily overlooked example. One wonders if it were a sponsored ad or a space-filler in a newspaper. One thing helps date it–the use of a straight pin rather than a staple (standard practice in a world before staplers!) betrays this was probably published before the 1930s.

One wonders what was done, if anything, to extend this message to the large number of immigrants who were not literate in English. Perhaps this is one reason why prosecutions were so rare–these admonitions may have been simply unintelligible to a large segment of the population. One wonders even more how injunctions against spitting can be rendered in visual form apart from literal illustration–it is a different challenge from a cigarette with a red bar running through it diagonally! And yet here we are again, 100 years later, trying to discourage a habit that is unseemly and to emphasize that this negligence is a public health hazard. Conveying this forcefully and intelligibly through an international symbol is a challenge that a talented and thoughtful contemporary graphic designer should take up.

Discussion — One Response

  • Cali Slusser 03/23/2020 on 1:31 PM

    Hi Russell,
    I just wanted to add some of my thoughts about this post. To begin, I thought you made some good observations about this Graphic Piece, and I even enjoyed how you spoke about the time period where it was from while including information about the type of pins that were used to hang it. When I personally saw this post, I could easily be reminded of what we are facing in today’s society with Covid-19. I went ahead and looked online to look for posts of signs that could be compared to what you have posted here about spitting in the late 1800’s. I included a website from BBC in my comment to show another example from today. The image from this website shows audiences what they should do and not do during this Covid-19 epidemic. Although my example is in a digital form, and includes pictures and new fonts, our examples both have things in common. They are placed in places where people are easily able to see them. With my example being digital, audiences at home can easily access its information, just like how people in the late 1800’s who frequented streets or sidewalks were able to find posters like your own example. This goes to show that these type of graphics will remain in demand, and prove to be essential when trying to fight off diseases while deterring people from practicing unsanitary habits.

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