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Eugenics Charts from the Kansas Free Fair

American Philosophical Society Library
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tags: health & hygiene science & medicine

type: Poster

Based in unfounded ideas about race and heredity, the "science" of eugenics found a major following in Germany and the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. By distorting discoveries in the growing field of human genetics, the Nazi regime aimed to establish the supposed superiority of an "Aryan" race, while their American counterparts promoted the ideal of a "perfect" American family.1 Advocates of eugenics argued that race determined intelligence, literacy, earning ability, and personality. In the US, they emphasized the superiority of middle-class Anglo-American families over recent immigrants, poor Anglo-Americans, and non-white families.2

Health exhibits at state fairs were one of many methods used by supporters of eugenics to teach families about this "science" and how their marriages and offspring contributed to the growth of "normal" and "abnormal" American children. The charts included here, which were on display at the Kansas Free Fair Eugenic and Health exhibit in 1929, sought to educate audiences about which individuals were "fit" for reproduction and which were "unfit."3 Those labeled "unfit," "abnormal," or "tainted" generally included those with criminal records, alcoholism, or mental illness, and those living in poverty. Each of these "undesirable" traits were believed to be transmitted through childbearing. To prevent this "weakening" of an "American" pedigree, eugenicists publicized the need for selective marriages based on ancestry.

American eugenic thought influenced Nazi doctrines and policies. Nazi marriage and sterilization laws, for example, were partly inspired by American models.4 Under such laws, more than 400,000 German citizens were forcibly sterilized by the end of World War II. Theories of "fit and unfit marriages" depicted on the chart were also central to Nazi propaganda.5

From the early twentieth century onward, dozens of American states enacted laws dictating the forced sterilization of thousands of citizens deemed "imbeciles" or suffering from certain mental disorders.6 According to one scholar's estimate, by the early 1960s, more than 60 percent of the 62,162 total eugenic sterilizations in the United States had been performed on women.7 Although never adopted into law on the scale of Nazi Germany, the eugenic ideal of a racial hierarchy could be found across American society, from the scientist's laboratory to the state fair.

 Paul Lombardo, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2011), 1–2.

Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 2–5.

American state fairs also sponsored events, commonly known as "Better Baby Contests," that awarded prizes for entrants with the "fittest" offspring. An outgrowth the of the "Better Baby" trend, the 1920 Kansas Free Fair featured the first "Fittest Family" contest.

In 1933, the regime instituted the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, which required the forced sterilization of any citizen suffering from a number of genetic disorders. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws decreed that prospective marriage partners be tested for hereditary diseases to guarantee the purity of an "Aryan" race. See James Q. Whitman, Hitler's American Model: 

Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 3.

For more detail, see Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (New York: Penguin Books, 2016). 

Rebecca M. Kluchin, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America 1950–1980 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press), 17–20.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
American Philosophical Society Library
Accession Number Mss.575.06.Am3, American Eugenics Society Records
Date Created
Kansas, USA
Document Type Poster
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