Don’t Spit! Pandemic Posters over the last 100 Years

During these anxious times of a pandemic we are constantly checking our mobile phones and computers for the latest updates, which makes us even more anxious.

Before technology allowed us to alarm ourselves with an overload of up-to-the-minute information, public-health messages were communicated using a fundamental graphic medium: the poster.

Produced and displayed on a massive scale, these posters used a variety of cultural, political, and psychological strategies to steer public behavior with eye-catching and sometimes shocking visuals.

And while today’s medium provides electronic data delivered via a silicon chip, the message for fighting disease remains uncomfortably the same: Cover your mouth when coughing, stay home when you’re sick, avoid crowds, and don’t poo in the communal stream. Timeless advice.

Pandemic poster 1

When influenza hit Chicago in September 1918, the city was just beginning to implement containment measures. Police officers were instructed to stop individuals who did not cover their face when coughing. (Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine).

Pandemic poster 2

Left: This 1918 bulletin from New York City’s department of health encourages citizens to use handkerchiefs and avoid crowds. Right: Public-health organizations raced to educate the public on ways to prevent the spread of germs in 1918. (Virginia State Board of Health / Courtesy of the Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries).

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Left: A fashionable young man from the 1920s demonstrates the proper alternative to “careless spitting.” Right: This poster uses public shaming to warn against public spitting.

Pandemic poster 4

These cartoon-like scenes from 1940 illustrate sarcastic tips for catching the flu: Wear short skirts in winter, eat unhealthy foods, sneeze in someone’s face, sleep with the windows open, and avoid doctors.

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These English posters from 1950 share the same message using typographically dynamic layouts.

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In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art invited a group of artists to create public-health posters to combat polio. This submission was by designer Herbert Matter.


A Chinese health poster teaching children to have good sleeping habits at night time, avoid mosquito bites and keep your stomach covered.

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This poster from India in the 1960s shows a man spraying insecticide on a kite-size mosquito carrying malaria.

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Before water fountains became more hygenic, public fountains used a common drinking cup for distribution.

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Left: Contemporary Venn diagram of COVID-19 (Courtesy of M. Azlif) Right: A clever take on toilet-paper hoarding (Courtesy of @typechap)

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Stay Sane, Stay Safe is an open platform that allows designers to contribute their own COVID-19 posters.

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A print-on-demand public-service announcement

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