Within the museum’s history of education collection there is a selection of mid-20th century public health posters. A small subset of these will fill one of the display cases in our Public science: ‘Science in the Real World’ exhibition.
Earlier methods of informing the public about health risks include broadsides (single sheets of paper printed on one-side only, carrying news, public notices, etc.), wood engraving prints and quarantine signs. It was during the early 20th century that posters became a popular form of disseminating such messages; in addition to benefiting from late 19th century developments in printing, public health groups drew on the methods of the advertising industry with regard to better integration of text with images and the use of behavioural science.
These posters aim to convey messages about health and get people to change their behaviour accordingly, but they are also about the pleasure of the image, often being colourful and playful despite their serious subject matter. By letting colour and illustration take centre stage, these posters are eye-catching and have a strong visual impact. Combining this with minimal text closely related to the image – often in slogan form – the posters were able to quickly get across the desired message in a memorable fashion, which is crucial for persuading people to improve their habits.
It is a testament to their efficacy that such posters are still used on todayas a method of communicating health messages to the public. This example, with the familiar “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” warning – first used during the Second World War – was distributed by the Department of Health for England’s National Director of Pandemic Influenza Preparedness to NHS outlet in 2007, as part of a measure to reduce the spread of influenza and other diseases, by encouraging people to adopt more hygienic coughing and sneezing behaviours.
Suggested objects & labels for display:
‘Keep it covered’ public information poster,c.1950s
During the 20th century posters like this one were popular as a method of disseminating health and safety messages to the public. The use of bright colours and playful images makes them eye-catching and memorable.
‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ public information poster, c.1950s
Part of a series concerning the spread of germs, this poster features the famous phrase “coughs and sneezes spread diseases’. Catchy slogans are effective for communicating health messages and encouraging behaviour changes. First introduced during WW2, this phrase was reintroduced in 2007 by the Department of Health.
‘Rules of Health’ public information poster, c.1940s-50s
This poster comes from the ‘Seven Rules of Health’ series issued by the Ministry of Health. Offering guidance on aspects of life including food, sleep, clothing, exercise and even ways to spend free time, this series gives an insight into how varied public information posters were.