Based in unfounded beliefs about race and heredity, eugenics found a major following in both Germany and the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The Nazi regime used theories of eugenics to add a sense of scientific legitimacy to its claims that the so-called "Aryan" race was genetically superior to others. In a different context, American eugenicists also promoted racial hierarchies and the ideal of a "perfect" American family.1 In both Germany and the United States, advocates of eugenics argued that genetics explained a person's intelligence, their personality, and their class status. In the US, they emphasized the superiority of middle-class white families over recent immigrants, Black Americans, and other non-white families.2
Health exhibits at state fairs were one of the many methods that supporters of eugenics used to spread their theories. The featured charts were displayed at the Eugenic and Health exhibit at the Kansas Free Fair in 1929. They were created to show visitors to the fair who should be considered "fit" for reproduction—and who should not.3 Those labeled "unfit," "abnormal," or "tainted" generally included people who had been diagnosed with certain mental disabilities or alcoholism. People living in poverty or those with extensive criminal records were also included. Racism and sexism also played heavily into eugenicist ideas of which individuals should be targeted. Eugenicists spread the idea that selective marriages based on ancestry were necessary because they believed that each of these supposedly "undesirable" traits was passed through childbearing.
American eugenic thinking influenced Nazi doctrines and policies. For example, Nazi marriage and sterilization laws were partly inspired by American models.4 Under these laws, more than 400,000 German citizens were forcibly sterilized by the end of World War II. The theories of "fit and unfit marriages" depicted on the featured chart were also central to Nazi propaganda.5
Starting in the early 20th century, dozens of American states passed laws forcing the sterilization of thousands of citizens diagnosed with certain mental disabilities.6 By the early 1960s, more than 62,000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized. According to one scholar's estimate, more than 60 percent of the total eugenic sterilizations in the United States had been on women.7 The eugenic ideal of a racial hierarchy was never adopted into law in the US on the scale of Nazi Germany, but these ideas could be found throughout American society—from scientific laboratories to state fairs.