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.