The rise of streamline design in the US during the twentieth century coincided with the rise of eugenics, a word that means “to have good genes.” Whereas scientists defined evolution using the phrase “natural selection,” eugenicists aimed to use “rational selection” to design human evolutionary progress towards “race betterment” or “race hygiene,” as eugenics was also called. In essence, they aimed to streamline society (aka, the “national body”) to produce better, faster, stronger, healthier, smarter, and more beautiful people by lessening or eliminating the “unfit” (the “dysgenic”) while propagating the “fit” (the “eugenic”).
Many eugenicists and other influential people presumed, a priori, that most physical, intellectual, personality and behavioral characteristics had a strong basis in genes. Attempts to codify these beliefs through heredity surveys were performed by the Eugenics Record Office, based at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The idea was, if traits are ascertained to be either genetic dominant or genetic recessive along the lines of the Mendelian ratios, then policies controlling human reproduction at the state level, along with one’s personal dedication to eugenics through one’s selection of mate, could lead to predictable outcomes: hence, “rational selection” for evolutionary progress.
This dual-pronged approach engaged both “negative” eugenics (preventing the propagation of the “unfit”) and “positive” eugenics (encouraging the reproduction of the “fit”) in order to efficiently transform the populace. “If all marriages were eugenic we could breed out most of this unfitness in three generations,” a sign at the Kansas Free Fair declared in 1926 [Figure 1]. Doing so would presumably minimize the “waste” (or in streamline design terminology, the “parasite drag”) of public taxpayer funds spent on the institutional care of those who “are born to be a burden on the rest,” identified in another sign as “persons with bad heredity such as the insane feeble-minded criminals and other defectives” [Figure 2].
These signs and other exhibits with similar messages were created and displayed by the American Eugenics Society (AES) at “Fitter Families Contests.” At state fairs, these exhibits broadcast the eugenic message to farmers who already cared about “the pedigree of [their] pigs and chicken and cattle,” who came seeking blue ribbons for their animals. Local representatives of the AES encouraged them to also consider the “ancestry of [their] children” by participating in a free medical examination (subject to anthropometric measurements and data collection) and family history interviews which resulted in grades of their quality.
Grade A to B+ individuals were awarded a medal [Figure 3A and 3B], whereas Grade B or lower ranked children received admonishments to carefully consider the trait quality of their future mate and were cautioned against ever having children at all. The U.S. Army entry measurements and world’s fair exhibits of similar ilk collected even more anthropometric data, given the thousands of people who attended, which various institutions with eugenic interests compiled statistically into numerical portraits of the so-called “Average American” [Figure 4] (aka “American Adonis” or, alternately, “Norma” and “Normman”) [Figure 5]. Similar eugenic motivations and methods spurred the development and application of methods of intelligence testing (such as standardized exams for IQ measurement and college entrance determination), the results of which were used for social and educational rankings and classifications.
The political, fiscal, and social allure of producing better, faster, stronger, healthier, smarter, more beautiful people, through discouraging the birth of the “unfit “while encouraging that of the “fit,” was too much for many Americans to resist. American support for social streamlining through eugenic ideas and policies became so widespread in the 1920s and 1930s that its marks in the historical record are clear. This includes numerous aspects of popular culture, such as the rise and popularity of streamline design, as well as the political and medical enaction of involuntary sterilization laws, usually targeting the institutionalized, that were passed in twenty-nine states, a majority of those in the nation. In fact, Germany’s law for the Prevention of the Hereditarily Diseased (1933) was built upon a “model sterilization law” (based upon California’s actual law) published by Harry Laughlin in Eugenical Sterilization in the United States (1922).
Even after the Holocaust, numerous US state sterilization laws remained on the books and in force in the decades beyond, with sterilizations continuing in Virginia and North Carolina into the 1970s and Oregon into the 1980s. Approximately 70,000 people in the US were involuntarily sterilized, with about one-third of those occurring in California. Shockingly, between 2006 and 2010, almost 150 women in California prisons were sterilized without necessary approvals, leading the California legislature to pass a law in 2014 forbidding sterilizations without consent.
Although eugenics supporters worked behind the scenes to try to influence census categories and tax laws that would reward those in the wealthier categories for having children, the main area that they succeeded in influencing federal laws was immigration restriction. During the early 1920s, posters made by the American Eugenics Society hung in the halls of Congress during the debates over the Immigration Restriction Act, with Harry Laughlin serving as the “expert eugenics agent” on site. Passed in 1924 and signed into law with President Coolidge declaring, “America must remain American,” it basically halted the immigration of so-called “dysgenic” Southern and Eastern Europeans, Russians, Middle Easterners, Asians and East Asians/Indians. The law moved the quota back to 2% of the number of each ethnicity in 1890, seriously decreasing their entry into the US until 1965.
Outside of state and world’s fairs, and state and federal laws, citizens learned about the principles of social streamlining in newspapers, advertisements and magazines. The AES Scrapbooks contain hundreds of clippings from local papers categorized by topics like birth control, marriage, crime, athletics, where eugenic ideals were promoted or debated. Historians have documented the influence of eugenics on religion, film, and literature as well, revealing the depth of eugenic ideals of social streamlining in broader popular culture.
Architects and designers were not exempt from its influences. I argue in Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s that the major principles of eugenics and streamline design were the same, to the extent that streamline design served as a material embodiment of eugenic ideology. Both movements aimed to eliminate “degeneracy” through controlled evolution, bringing everything “into line.” Both talked of purifying the “stream” of life to accelerate biological efficiency through enhancing “smooth flow” through removal of “parasite drag.” Both aimed to increase hygiene and sterilization in bodies and the environment, with a shared goal of achieving the utopian “ideal type.”
At the time, and most definitely in hindsight, the ideals of social streamlining through eugenics were and are problematic, even if they still garner support from certain groups. Claimed benefits like eliminating hereditary disease, lessening crime, saving tax dollars or minimizing insurance payouts spent on medical or institutional care for people who can’t work or take care of themselves, appeal to some people, but they are based upon outdated or debated scientific suppositions. Disease, crime, and inability to work are complex issues that hinge upon social determinations and the nature vs. nurture debate, the relative impact of genetic or epigenetic and/or environmental influences. Many environmental influences – such as access to food, education, healthcare, as well as zipcode hazards – are not genetic but sociopolitical in nature, influenced by past or present practices of racism and classism in civic issues.
Furthermore, because eugenic prioritizations are based upon “fitness” and “unfitness,” which are vague categorizations more accurately described as biopolitical “imaginaries,” the issue of who judges or defines these for others is a basic problem. In fact, human variability, disability, and sickness are normal occurrences, so political and socioeconomic power enters into play with any codifications and enforcement against certain “traits” or “types” of behaviors. These have proven in the past to violate basic human rights.
Despite these problems, eugenic ideals did not die even though the word became taboo, and then, forgotten. In the late 1930s to early 1940s, eugenicists made a conscious effort to shift their language, replacing the word “eugenics” with “genetics” and later, “sociobiology.” Although technical and scientific knowledge of the workings of nucleotides, heredity, and environmental triggers of epigenetic markers has continued to grow, the allure of controlling biological systems to produce “better” (also known as eugenic) outcomes persists. See, for example, recent discussion about “designer babies.” Strong echoes of eugenic rhetoric also permeate political debates today, embedded in the language and arguments effecting the recent rise of fascism, nationalism, and anti-immigration sentiment. Policies of social streamlining, therefore, should be considered carefully in relation to their historical precedents.