Eugenicists drew from anthropometry, the study of human measurement and proportions, to argue that physical traits—from forehead angles to fingerprints—were associated with complex behavioral traits such as intelligence and criminality. Above: A display from the Second International Congress of Eugenics (1921) summarizes methods of head measurement. 'Measurement of physical and mental traits.” Courtesy of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Dolan DNA Learning Center. Below: A subject demonstrates the use of a 1910s craniometer, designed to gather detailed cranial measurements. “Head-Measurer of Tremearne,” 1914. Background: 'Poster on anthropometric methods,' displayed at the Second International Congress of Eugenics. Courtesy of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Dolan DNA Learning Center.
Eugenicists were fascinated by supposed racial differences, both physical and intellectual. This display from the Second International Congress of Eugenics (1921) compares the anthropometric measurements of white and black fetuses, lending “scientific” support to pre-existing racial hierarchies. 'Comparison of white and negro fetuses.” Courtesy of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Dolan DNA Learning Center.
These images of “50 criminal brains,” accompanied by descriptions of brain shape and size, were displayed at the Second International Congress of Eugenics held at the American Museum of Natural History in 1921. The Congress served as the premiere professional meeting of eugenics advocates from across the world. The exhibition portion, which served as a platform for popular eugenic education, was organized by Eugenics Record Office superintendent Harry H. Laughlin. 'Massachusetts department of mental diseases exhibits pictures of 50 criminal brains.” Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Dolan DNA Learning Center.
Criminality was among the most targeted “traits” that eugenicists sought to eliminate. They argued that Blacks and immigrants were more prone to crime and delinquency than “native” Anglo-Americans. These images, designed by Harvard anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton, distilled these claims into familiar racial caricatures. “Rankings in murder” and “Negroid sane criminals,” from The American Criminal: An Anthropological Study. Harvard University Press, 1939.
Standardized mental testing such as early IQ tests allowed eugenicists to create a scale of functionality for the “feebleminded,” from “idiot” to “moron.” These categories had real-world consequences, as evidenced by the 1918 Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens, a pamphlet published by the U.S. Public Health Service to teach immigration officials how to examine, identify, and exclude “mentally defective” immigrants. Above: Imbecile scale, from Mental Defectives in Virginia: A Special Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to the General Assembly of Nineteen Sixteen on Weak-mindedness in the State of Virginia, together with a Plan for the Training, Segregation and Prevention of the Procreation of the Feeble-minded, 1915. Below: Portraits and text from Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens, United States Public Health Service, 1918. Courtesy Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Dolan DNA Learning Center.
The sterilization of the eugenically “unfit” was broadly touted by eugenicists as the prime means of improving the nation’s “breeding stock.” Surviving numerous legal battles, eugenic sterilization was ruled constitutional “for the protection and health of the state” in a 1927 Supreme Court decision. State laws passed across the nation would allow the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people. In the decades that followed, Nazi officials would model their own sterilization regime on American legislation. A 1937 flyer published by the Sterilization League of New Jersey explains the supposed economic efficiency of eugenic sterilization. “Her sterilization would have cost $150.' Courtesy of University of Minnesota, Social Welfare History Archives.
Eugenics was premised on the simplistic application of Gregor Mendel’s “laws of inheritance” to complex human behaviors such as “criminality” and “pauperism,” supposedly settling the nature vs. nurture debate once and for all. For eugenicists, the immutability of such “unfit” traits necessitated strict selection and regulation to prevent the “tainting” of the “fit.” Posters from the 1929 Kansas Free Fair explain eugenic understandings of genetic inheritance. Above: 'Chart used at Kansas Free Fair describing 'unfit human traits' and the importance of eugenic marriage.” Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. Below: 'Chart used at Kansas Free Fair showing 'marriages fit and unfit' with outcomes of 'pure' and 'abnormal' unions.' Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.
Variations of the above “flashing light” sign traveled the country as part of the popular education initiatives of the eugenics movement, preying on paranoid fears of foreign threats to American norms such as crime, illiteracy, and immigration. It also neatly distilled the core of the eugenics creed: that those at the bottom of nature’s rigid hierarchies of race, class, and ability posed a threat to the progress and modernity of the American nation. “Flashing light sign used with first exhibit at Fitter Families Contest.” Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.
Racial mixing was a primary concern of many eugenicists, who believed that “racial half-breeds” inherited the qualities of the “inferior” race. The Progressive Era influx of non-“Nordic” immigrants and the migration of the American Southern Black population posed an increasing threat of widespread “racial degeneration.” As a defense, eugenicists advocated successfully for strict anti-miscegenation policies such as Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, which criminalized marriage between white and non-white persons and required that the “race” of each newborn be recorded at birth. A lecture slide belonging to Eugenics Record Office superintendent Harry H. Laughlin depicts “mixed types of uncivilized peoples,” including “race-mixed Indians of Mexico and the United States” and “Tamul-Malays of Asia.” “Mixed types of uncivilized peoples.” Courtesy of Truman State University.
A primary target of eugenics propagandists was the swaths of “unfit” immigrants threatening to destroy the pure Anglo-American face of America. As Chinese Exclusion had all but ended the “threat” of Chinese immigration, eugenicists turned their xenophobic eye towards Europe and other Asian countries. Madison Grant’s hugely popular Passing of the Great Race familiarized average Americans with the term “Nordic,” as well as the inferiority of Eastern European “Alpines” and Southern European “Mediterraneans.” The migration of the latter two groups would be severely restricted by the eugenics-inspired Immigration Act of 1924. This critical legislation, which also extended Chinese Exclusion to nearly all of Southern and Eastern Asia, would not be wholly overturned until 1965. Above: 'Present Distribution of the European Races.' Madison Grant, Passing of the Great Race. Simon & Schuster, 1916. Bottom Right: “Who will be the mothers of coming America,” from Albert Edward Wiggam: The Apostle of Efficiency, 1904/1932. Courtesy of Redpath Chautauqua Bureau Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa. Bottom Left: 'Marriage and birth rates in relation to immigration,' displayed by the Race Betterment Foundation at the Second International Congress of Eugenics. Courtesy of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Dolan DNA Learning Center.
Researchers at the Eugenics Record Office were hungry for hard data that could support their claims of racial and mental superiority. The American draft of World War I offered the opportunity for the massive collection of anthropometric data. Above: Life-size sculpture, sculpted by ERO director Charles B. Davenport’s daughter, gives physical form to the average measurements of white American men, based on measurements collected during the draft. The sculpture was featured at the Second International Congress of Eugenics (1921). 'The average American male,' by Jane Davenport. Courtesy of Truman State University. Below: Lecture slide belonging to Harry H. Laughlin illustrates the Army data, comparing the measurements of white and non-white soldiers. 'Comparative stature and measurements for white and colored soldiers.” Courtesy of Truman State University.
Eugenics rhetoric of “better breeding” appealed to rural American agriculturalists familiar with the concept of selective breeding through their livestock and crops. Similar to competitions for fattest pig or largest squash, “Fitter Family” contests at state fairs across the country evaluated the “eugenic fitness” of the “best bred” contestant families. Above: Fitter Family winner at the 1927 Kansas State Free Fair poses. ''Medium family' winner, Fitter Families Contest, Kansas State Free Fair (1927).' Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. Bottom right: Summary of the family examination that secured the family’s victory. Exams included mental tests, physical exams, and family history evaluations. ''Medium family' winner, Fitter Families Contest, Kansas State Free Fair (1927): family examination summary.' Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. Bottom left: Designed by armchair eugenicist Madison Grant, these medals were awarded to Fitter Family winners. “Fitter family medal.” Courtesy of the Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Division of Medicine and Science.
While bureaucratic institutions like the Eugenics Record Office worked behind the scenes to compile a clearinghouse of eugenic “data,” their simplified theories were distilled to the American public through popular magazine articles, best-selling books, and traveling exhibits at museums, expositions, and state fairs. A “Eugenic and health” exhibit teaches attendees the tenets of eugenic understandings of inheritance and “unfit” traits. 'Eugenics and Health Exhibit, Kansas State Free Fair,' 1929. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.