Why Did States Require Blood Tests for Marriage Licenses for So Long?

A young woman gets tested for syphilis in a "trailer-laboratory" in Washington, D.C. in 1937.
A young woman gets tested for syphilis in a "trailer-laboratory" in Washington, D.C. in 1937.
Harris & Ewing Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Contrary to what you might assume, America’s history of mandatory blood tests before marriage has nothing to do with an Oedipal fear of accidentally tying the knot with your long-lost mother, brother, or other close relative. It does, however, have roots in what was once considered a topic nearly as uncomfortable as incest: sexually transmitted diseases.

Back in the 1930s, the rising rates of syphilis were causing a public health crisis, partially because the subject was so taboo.

“We might virtually stamp out this disease were we not hampered by the widespread belief that nice people don't talk about syphilis, that nice people don't have syphilis, and that nice people shouldn't do anything about those who do have syphilis,” U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran Jr. wrote in a 1936 article called “The Next Great Plague to Go.”

So Parran launched a nationwide campaign to educate everyone about venereal disease, commonly abbreviated as “VD.” Posters, films, cartoons, and even stamps urged people to avoid casual sex and get tested regularly, while the American Sexual Health Association sponsored a “Social Health” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. In 1938, Congress passed the Venereal Disease Control Act, which distributed $3 million—and more in later years—among the federal and state governments for research and testing.

The Illinois Works Projects Administration wanted people to stick to gambling on whether the Chicago Cubs would ever win the World Series.Work Projects Administration Poster Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Though Parran’s efforts were progressive in some ways, they were seriously damaging in others. For one, he perpetuated misconceptions about how STIs could spread, asserting that “many cases come from such casual contacts as the use of a recently soiled drinking cup, a pipe or cigarette, in receiving services from diseased nursemaids, barber or beauty shop operators, etc.” He also oversaw a horrifically unethical experiment in Tuskegee, Alabama, that studied the effects of syphilis in several hundred Black men by withholding treatment from them, without their informed consent.

It was in this culture of heightened awareness (and misinformation) that states began to pass laws requiring couples to submit to blood tests before applying for marriage licenses, so they could avoid spreading a previously undetected venereal disease to their spouse and future children. As historian Erin Wuebker wrote in 2016, 30 states had enacted such legislation by 1944, and Gallup polls throughout the 1930s and 1940s revealed that the majority of American citizens supported the government initiatives.

New York's subway stations were filled with lovely posters like this in the late 1930s and early 1940s.Work Projects Administration Poster Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

After the syphilis crisis was over, some states simply pivoted to using premarital blood tests to check for other diseases, like tuberculosis, rubella, and HIV. The problem, however, was that the practice didn’t actually uncover that many cases of any kind. The Mises Institute reported that the nation as a whole spent around $80 million on premarital syphilis tests and found only 456 positive cases; and according to a 1989 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, prospective newlyweds in Illinois spent $2.5 million to test for HIV during the first six months of the program, and only eight of the 70,846 tests came back positive. Since neighboring states saw an increase in marriage license applications during that time, the study suggested that people were simply crossing state borders to avoid getting tested (after all, Illinois didn’t pay for the tests).

As states started to realize that premarital blood testing wasn’t a cost-effective way to screen for diseases, they abolished their laws. But it was definitely a slow process—Montana became the final state to repeal its mandatory blood testing (for rubella) just last year.

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Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Each December, Christians throw a collective birthday bash to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’s arrival on Earth. But without a birth certificate—or any other official record of his actual birthdate—in existence, December 25 seems like an arbitrary day for all our Christmas traditions. So how did early observers choose it?

When Was Jesus Really Born?

Since the Bible doesn’t name a month or even a season for Jesus’s birth, historians have relied on other context clues to estimate when it occurred. Shepherds tend sheep in the Nativity story, which people often cite as evidence that Jesus was more likely born during the spring. Others argue that Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate, it’s also possible that sheep set aside for religious sacrifices may have been given free rein, frigid night or not.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastiano Conca, 1720.J. Paul Getty Museum // Public Domain

One clue pointing specifically to December 25 comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who approached old age without having given birth to any children. One day, her husband, a priest named Zacharias, was burning incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with good news: Elizabeth would bear a son. Early Christians guessed that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which they believed always took place on September 24 (it actually shifts year to year based on the Jewish lunisolar calendar). Nine months after September 24 is June 24, so they chose that as the birthdate—and feast day—of Elizabeth and Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. When Gabriel later visited Mary to let her know that she’d bear a son, too, he mentioned that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. That means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December—the night of December 24, to be exact, or the early hours of December 25.

Another theory suggests that Christians arrived at December 25 based on an ancient Jewish idea that prophets die on their birthday. During the 3rd century CE, theologists like Tertullian and Hippolytus dated Jesus’s crucifixion to March 25, since it happened around Passover. But to Sextus Julius Africanus, it was less about when Jesus was born and more about when he first came to Earth; in other words, he believed Jesus’s death and conception coincided on March 25, and thus his birth occurred on December 25 [PDF].

The Early History of Christmas

Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.

While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.

A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783.Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”

Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.

In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.

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