American eugenics movement archives

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

Should you ever care to delve into America's history with eugenics, the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement is a handy thing indeed. It's hard to believe eugenics was as popular here as it in fact was without seeing the visual evidence. The images here include Fitter Family contests, where white Americans competed at state fairs--much like cattle--to determine who had the best breeding. (Make sure to check out this traveling exhibit.) Also, lots of documents and flyers linking criminality to immigrants and heredity. (Oh, the irony of using the swastika to indicate the racial inferiority of Germans!) The interface is pretty clunky but it's worth pecking around.

For background on the early 20th century American eugenics movement, you could do worse than my interview with historian Daniel Kevles.



  1. Eugenics was very popular here in the US. Planned Parenthood was founded in the hopes of sterilizing large numbers of poor people and people of color.

  2. Damn – our president is civily insane. I knew I should’ve voted for the pink guy and the crazy lady.

  3. It’s crazy that people ever actually thought this was a good idea. Thank goodness for progress.

  4. One can find incidences of this type profiling of one group throughout history and around the world – Jews in Nazi Germany, for example.

  5. It’s good to know our president is merely insane, and not a criminal.
    We’re all mad here…

    1. It’s good to know our president is merely insane, and not a criminal.< ?i>

      And yet it’s odd to note that several commenters have reduced a constitutional lawyer who became president to a racial meme.

  6. So glad my ancestors were Jehovah’s Witnesses (and therefor refuse all medical procedures) or I probably would never have existed.

    That said, every generation has their own form of craziness. The 20s were flawed yes, but we have terrorism and citizen surveillance and secret prisons.

  7. Eugenics is a great example of how logic and ethics can be at odds. People are able to breed better crops, ornamental flowers, pets, farm animals, etc. So logically we should be able to breed better people.

    Took a little while, a genocide or two, a fair bit of oppression here and there, to figure out we don’t really have a good grasp of what “better people” means.

    But eugenics is still with us, just in a more palatable form. Ever heard of genetic counseling? Or anyone say “I’m not going to have kids because X runs in my family?”

    As for the planned parenthood origins kerfuffle, I find it hilarious that the batsh*t religious nuts who are denouncing planned parenthood now were same batsh*t religious nuts who were against desegregation 50 years ago… Historical denunciation goes both ways…

  9. what timing! I’m in the middle of A Conservative History of the American Left and just finished the chapter about the history of eugenics in America. It was first introduced to people around the time of the Civil War. In that same chapter it mentions that many of these communists who were proponents of eugenics weren’t interested in abolishing chattel slavery.

  10. Even the racial distinctions people made back them seem so weird. “Alpine”, “East Baltic”, “Keltic” and “Dinaric”…lolwut?

    Hopefully in another 100 years the kerfluffles we have over black/white/brown/red/yellow will seem just as absurd.

  11. It just blows my mind that this stuff is so relatively recent. But then again it doesn’t really shock me when a black college professor is arrested in his own home for having the nerve to be upset about being suspected for breaking into his own home… And the child day camp that had their pool passes collectively revoked to not “change the complexion”… And the cop who got a slap on the wrist for choking a black EMT who was just doing his job and trying to get a patient to the Hospital… etc., etc., etc….

    The informational black man chart is astounding because it doesn’t even try to say that some black men could be good… They just have variations in the type of criminal they are…

  12. You know, this could work, we just have to lower our expectations about what “better people” means. For instance, I bet we could breed people with blue skin color if we wanted. We could select for just about any physical characteristic we can imagine. We’re just not trying hard enough.

  13. #12

    I’m tempted to ask which “communists,” and which “left” in general, because most mid-19th-century leftists that I have read were fierce opponents of slavery, and some were active in the abolitionist movement.

    Of course mid-19th-century conservatives in America were supporters of slavery, including chattel slavery and coverture marriage.

  14. The problems with selecting humans for any sort of trait are extensive, but somehow get missed by the people who actually try it.

    When the species being bred has the same lifespan as the species doing the trait selection (obvious, when it’s the same species in both roles), you can’t get more than one or two generations before there’s a change in leadership and a possible change in direction for the breeding program.

    It’s hard to stay on target for the breeding program between generations when you can’t even clearly articulate what sort of traits you’re breeding for.

    Most human breeding programs (on top of everything else) are looking for traits that are hard to test for, so standards for defining which members of a given generation have “improved” over the last will drift – and in the case of humans, will drift faster than the leadership changes.

    Humans are notoriously hard to restrict for breeding in the first place.

    Arranged marriages don’t prevent either partner from having an affair, and locking people up in little boxes to prevent them from ruining your breeding program tends to offend the neighbors (who are people, and therefore rightly fear you will move on to locking THEM up in little boxes for your wacky program).

    @#17: Blue skin may not be achievable; selective breeding doesn’t create new genes, just replicates existing material – you’d need to find someone with genetically sourced blue skin to start your blue people program. Or you could just manufacture them by feeding them colloidal silver and call it a day.

  15. Luckily human eugenics movements tend to come and go as fads lasting less than a generation at a time, which severely limits how much the would-be breeders can accomplish.

    Of course this could change now that the technology exists to directly tamper with the human genome.

  16. Jerril: “Blue skin may not be achievable; selective breeding doesn’t create new genes…”

    No need! A methemoglobinemia (met-H) gene already exists, the most visible characteristic of which is – yup! Blue skin!

    For fun, Google for the Fugate family of Hazard, Kentucky.

  17. That is truly nauseating. Definitely a lesson the history books around here aren’t willing to teach.

  18. “War Against The Weak” by Edwin Black is a 500 page tome detailing this subject. I was surprised to learn of Alexander Graham Bell’s involvement. Also the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding of eugenics research in the U.S. and Germany.

  19. Margaret Sanger was first and always about birth control to help women to be something more than baby machines. For a while she got suckered by the seductive semi-logic of eugenics. A surprising number of otherwise intelligent people got swept up in it. Come on, who doesn’t want “Better People?” If it hadn’t been a bogus pseudo-science it would’ve become the new world order. She gave up on eugenics when its flaws and bias against the poor became obvious.

    What’s way more interesting than Sanger’s footnote in history is the way that American industrial fortunes transformed a bunch of Victorian head-measuring utopian BS into a tool for fascist ethnic cleansing.

  20. Our genetic diversity is actually a strength, not a weakness. It can be helpful for survival.

  21. Oddly enough it was Sir Francis Galton, a eugenicist, whom James Surowieki credits with the first observations of collective intelligence.

  22. From The LA TIMES last week:

    Here’s what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine: “Frankly I had thought that at the time [Roe vs. Wade] was decided,” Ginsburg told her interviewer, Emily Bazelon, “there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”,0,4640584.column

  23. In the 1980s, Adam Parfrey of Feral House publishing rather gleefully pointed out how solidly eugenics lay in the intellectual and scientific mainstream of the late 19th century and well into the 20th. At a guess I’d say it was the consequence of the fairly new sciences of evolutionary biology and sociology being put in the service of progress. As a science that confirmed colonial powers’ high opinion of themselves vis-a-vis their colonized peoples, it was heaven-sent.

    So naturally there was a free flow of ideas on eugenics between the US and western Europe, including, yup, Nazi Germany. Also, slower peer review and prejudice allowed for downright bogus studies like that of the fictional American “Kallikak” family. So America had its immigration quotas and laws against “miscegenation.”

    The Holocaust dealt eugenics a mortal blow, of course, but it dies hard. The state of Virginia only stopped sterilizing mentally retarded people in the 1970s, and the idea of isolating a “gay gene” can still grab headlines.

    In a Nantucket general store a couple of years ago, I found a copy of A. E. Wiggam’s “The Fruit of The Family Tree,” a popular text from 1924. All the ideas that a modern American should have concerning improving the race were in there, and the 20th century never looked so promising.

  24. There are many fine web sites with material on eugenics. In addition to the Eugenics Archive mentioned in this story, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory also has a great deal of material on eugenics at the section entitled Chronicle at:

    DNA Interactive:

    Others are at:

    Vermont Eugenics:

    University of Virginia:

    North Carolina Eugenics:

    Indiana eugenics: ; ;

    Historic markers:;

Comments are closed.