10 Politically Incorrect Posters in American History

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In today’s world, we shake our head when we hear a high-profile figure make racist remarks. We cringe at racist or sexist or offensive comments being directed at other races, genders, or nationalities. Yet here’s the sad truth: these sorts of attitudes and behaviors were perfectly acceptable for the vast majority — more than three-quarters — of U.S. history. It hurts to look at reminders of that past, but we’ve gathered 10 interesting posters from this politically incorrect past that are not just offensive to our modern sensibilities, they also echo some of the current debate on immigration and other issues. (Images are in chronological order.)

 

10. Runaway Slave Reward Poster (1854)

Many slave owners paid large rewards for the return of escaped slaves.

Many slave owners paid large rewards for the return of escaped slaves.

Posters such as this dotted the South — and even non-slave states — during the era of slavery. That $100 reward is the equivalent of about $2,600 in 2014.

 

9. Civil War Recruitment Poster (1863)

Posters soliciting black Americans to fight for the Union in the Civil War went up all over the Northern U.S. after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Posters soliciting black Americans to fight for the Union in the Civil War went up all over the Northern U.S. after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Nothing too politically incorrect about the large print on this poster, but some of the fine print is condescending to blacks: “If we are not lower in the scale of humanity than Englishmen, Irishmen, White Americans and other races, we can show it now.” (See the fine print here at ohiolink.edu.) More than 186,000 African Americans fought for the Union in the Civil War.

 

8. Racist Campaign Poster (1866)

Race has been an issue in countless U.S. political campaigns, including this 1866 contest in Pennsylvania.

Race has been an issue in countless U.S. political campaigns, including this 1866 contest in Pennsylvania.

Countless American politicians have used racial themes to disparage their opponents. Some were subtle: think Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign mantra on “law and order” in 1968, a reference to the problem of urban crime and riots of the era. Other campaigns have been anything but subtle, such as this poster from the 1866 gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania. Democratic candidate Hiester Clymer, running on a white supremacist platform, went to great lengths during the campaign to portray Republican James Geary as “for the Negro.” Geary won the election.

 

7. Yellow Peril Advertisement (1882)

Fear of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century even carried over into advertisements.

Fear of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century even carried over into advertisements.

A wave of Chinese immigrants began arriving in the western U.S. in the mid-19th century. Many came to work on the railroads, but others opened up businesses, including laundries. This mass immigration alarmed many Americans, who viewed the Chinese as subhuman. A great hysteria, known as the Yellow Peril, swept the nation, as Americans called for immigration limits and stricter laws regarding Chinese. In this advertising poster for “Magic Washer” soap, Uncle Sam kicks a caricatured Chinese man, suggesting the soap will eliminate the need for Chinese laundries. That same year, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, imposing strict limits on Chinese immigration.

 

6. Indian Land for Sale Poster (1911)

Native Americans lost almost half their lands in the last decade of the 19th century.

Native Americans lost almost half their lands in the last decade of the 19th century.

Native Americans have suffered greatly at the hands of U.S. government policy through the years, from broken treaties in the 1800s to the current situation on reservations. Among the most harmful U.S. actions: the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which split Native American reservations and encouraged the residents to purchase private plots of land for farming. If the Native Americans failed to utilize the land, the government could sell the land to white settlers. By the turn of the century, Native Americans had lost nearly half the land they had remaining.

 

5. STD Poster (Early 1940s)

During World War II, American soldiers were warned that single women were a hazard to their health.

During World War II, American soldiers were warned that single women were a hazard to their health.

The Japanese and Germans weren’t the only enemies facing American soldiers during World War II. An outbreak of syphilis and gonorrhea early in the war prompted the government to begin a public health campaign to warn soldiers of these threats. With posters such as the one above, and films with ominous titles (USS VD: Ship of Shame), the campaign went to great lengths to portray single women and one-night stands as more dangerous than a loaded gun. Rarely was there a mention that single women should avoid any contact with possible disease-carrying soldiers. Here’s a look at some other posters from the era on BusinessInsider.com.

 

4. Anti-Semitic Poster (1940s)

This anti-Semitic leaflet blamed Jews for driving Aryans (whites) out of business across the U.S. Credit: Michigan State University Comic Art Collection.

This anti-Semitic leaflet blamed Jews for driving Aryans (whites) out of business across the U.S. Credit: Michigan State University Comic Art Collection.

There is a long history of anti-Semitism around the world, and the United States has seen more than its share of this behavior. This image, a white supremacy leaflet, urged Aryans (whites) to “Learn the facts — Stop the Jewish parasites — help build a strong, white America. Here’s a link to a larger version on Flickr.

 

3. War Poster (1945)

Americans had good reason to despise the Japanese during World War II.

Americans had good reason to despise the Japanese during World War II.

After helping defeat Nazi Germany in World War II, the United States turned its attention to stopping Japan. You know the outcome there. Hard to believe from looking at this type of anti-Japanese sentiment that within a few years, the U.S. would sign a pact vowing to defend Japan against foreign attack and that within a generation, Japanese consumer products would become a dominant force in the American market.

 

2. Blaxploitation Film Artwork (1974)

This film had such an incendiary title, it played in many theaters under a different name.

This film had such an incendiary title, it played in many theaters under a different name.

The producer and star of this controversial film, Fred Williamson, rose to fame in the 1960s as a pro football player before turning to films. Even in that era of terrible “blaxploitation” films that exploited African American themes, it’s hard to believe this explosive title appeared in theaters, although it played in some regions as The Boss or The Black Bounty Killer. The movie endures today as a cult classic of the genre, thanks to a 2008 DVD release titled, Boss.

 

1. Occupy Wall Street Sign (2011)

Many anti-Semitic signs were spotted at Occupy Wall Street rallies in 2011.

Many anti-Semitic signs were spotted at Occupy Wall Street rallies in 2011.

Some might wonder: Why run a story like this in 2014? After all, these racist and politically incorrect sentiments are old news, a dark chapter from America’s past. And then we have the above photo, taken at an Occupy Wall Street rally in 2011. Many media outlets reported on the anti-Semitic signs and attitudes at these protests across the country.

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