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story.lead_photo.caption Excerpt from a fundraising ad for the Military Welfare Commission’s fight against venereal diseases, from the Arkansas Democrat of Dec. 28, 1918. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

All media outlets must make fun of hangover cures on New Year's Eve — it's the law. Or so it seems some years. But 1918 was not one of them, not in Arkansas.

State laws against liquor sales predated the nationwide Prohibition by more than three years. And so on New Year's Eve 1918, nobody in Arkansas had any need for hangover prevention information.


And so Old News cannot delight you today with surprisingly quaint hangover information. We'll have to content ourselves with surprisingly modern information about sex education — in the schools.

What's that you say? Inconceivable? And yet it appears there was a bit of sex ed going around in 1918. According to a large ad that ran in the Dec. 30, 1918, Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette, lecturers had visited schools to warn boys and girls about sexually transmitted diseases.

This ad announced that $5,000 in donations were urgently needed to continue the good work of the Military Welfare Commission. With the war ending and Camp Pike demobilizing, the War Department was about to defund this cooperative effort to combat venereal disease.

The ad touted the excellent "repressive" work the commission had been doing in cooperation with the U.S. Public Health Service, the police department and local health boards:

In fourteen months there were 3,000 arrests for prostitution and 350 for bootlegging. Under this scientific control of the situation prostitutes with malignant venereal diseases were not simply fined and turned back upon the city, but confined to a hospital until cured or rendered noninfectious.

The part of the ad that grabbed me was this, under the heading "Educational":

The ostrich policy is out of date. To accomplish results we must attack the old evils in a new way. In the past year trained lecturers were assigned to high schools to instruct your boys and girls in sex hygiene. In this enlightened age we must not allow our boys and girls to reproach us with such pitiful expressions as "If I had only known" — "Why didn't someone tell me?"

Young men and young women should know that venereal diseases cause not only disability, wrecked lives, paralysis and insanity among men, but invalidism and sterility among women; blindness, deformity and idiocy among children.

The thrust of all this work and the reason its funding came from the War Department was concern for the health of the Army. But public health mattered, too. The U.S. Public Health officer in charge of Camp Pike, Jacob Casson Geiger, assured the Gazette on Dec. 12 that no diseased soldiers would leave camp uncured.

[RELATED PHOTOS: Read the vintage ads here]

VD was rampant. Today we can look online to find the two-volume Report of the Surgeon-General of the Army to the Secretary of War for fiscal 1918 and read, "The number of cases of venereal disease among selective service men became so large that in August, 1918, plans of special dispensaries in the development battalion of each camp were prepared."

On Page 486 of Volume 1 of the same report, we can look up Table 231 and see that in May 1918 — just that one month — among every 1,000 admissions at the Camp Pike hospital, there were 234.49 for gonorrhea, 59.65 for chancroid bacteria and 39.42 for syphilis. There were 50,000 men in camp, but that is plenty of venereal disease.

There were drastically fewer cases in December 1918, and the final rate for 1918 was 26.18 for gonorrhea, 18.58 for chancroid and 37.22 for syphilis. We could look up disease incidence in Arkansas today and see large numbers, too, but that's What Is. Our lane is What Was.

When the call for $5,000 went out, an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat urged everyone to give as soon as possible. The Democrat had been on board with the commission's work all year, urging the public to report immorality by calling Main 2056.

Are you interested in making Little Rock the best Cantonment town in the country? Do you want to suppress immorality and the sale of liquor? Do you want to help our soldiers maintain their highest efficiency by keeping them free from vice? Then report all information you have that pertains to immorality and liquor selling ... All information will be held absolutely confidential on request.

I counted 68 of these ads in the 1918 Democrat archive — all published for free, according to a contemporary notice in The Social Hygiene Bulletin, Vol. 5.

By Jan 3, $3,291 of the requested $5,000 was in hand, according to the Democrat. Flipping ahead in the 1919 archives, I see reports of sex ed conducted around the state by the YMCA, at "Older Boys conferences."

As Old News advances into the 1919 archives, we'll learn more about that. But today's reading has included so many numbers my brain has run out of gas.


Also out of gas — but 100 years ago — was the whole city of Little Rock.

A pipe in the Arkansas Natural Gas Co. system broke under the Sulphur River, which was running high, the Dec. 29 Gazette reported:

As the quickest plan, men in deep-sea diving suits were sent down to make the repairs, but the current proved too strong and that plan had to be abandoned.

Then came Plan B, building a cofferdam. "Cofferdam" was a new word for me. It means a watertight enclosure pumped dry to allow construction work below a waterline. The Gazette used it in a sentence for us:

The cofferdam was actually built and practically all the water pumped out when the cofferdam gave way and in view of this, it was regarded as too dangerous a plan.

Plan C was to bypass the broken pipe with a temporary line, but building it would take a day and maybe more. Another cofferdam was tried, but that work went very slowly.

Hardware stores sold out of every wood- or coal-burning stove they had in stock, and were having stoves delivered by express train. People without stoves were forced to patronize restaurants for all meals, and the restaurants were hard pressed to feed them.

But many families' disposable income had been tapped down by Christmas. Some made novel use of electric appliances, like cooking canned foods on an inverted electric iron.

Other people were resorting to burning charcoal, and of course some did so stupidly, indoors. One physician had already dealt with five cases in which separate households partly asphyxiated themselves. The Gazette remarked:

To commit suicide by burning charcoal in a tightly closed room is a favorite method with the French.

What a happy, happy New Year for 1919: no booze, no gas, no money to warn kids about sex. And it was cold.


Style on 12/31/2018

Print Headline: No gas or gin but lots of VD

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