I was recently flipping through some old magazines when I stumbled across a couple telling reminders what life was like before widespread vaccines (well, and antibiotics, t00). Namely, fucking precarious.

The first comes from Collier’s, one of the big general-interest magazines of its day. This particular edition is dated September 18, 1937; among the features is a huge piece on the Dust Bowl, titled “Land Where Our Children Die.” The back has this ad from New York Life Insurance, which shouts about how the company has support its customers through EPIDEMICS. What’s interesting is the copy frames epidemics as almost quaint—but they’re still vivid enough in recent memory that they can be used to advertise life insurance:

And then there’s this, which comes from a May 1950 edition of Modern Screen, “For Girls Only.” (June Allyson got the cover.) It’s pretty grim:

Of course these days polio is little more than a memory in America, thanks to an aggressive twenty-year campaign of vaccination.

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To reach even farther back, here’s a grim passage from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s classic A Midwife’s Tale, about the diary kept by a woman living in colonial Maine:

Between 1767 and 1770, Oxford lost 12 percent of its population in one of the worst diphtheria epidemics in New England’s history. One hundred forty-four persons died, mostly children ages two to fourteen. Martha’s uncle and aunt, Richard and Mary Moore, buried eight of their eleven children. Martha and Ephraim lost three of their six children in less than ten days. A row of tiny headstones in the burying ground behind the Oxford Congregational Church commemorates the Moore deaths.

Don’t know about you guys, but I’m going to get that Tdap booster before meeting any babies.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.