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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Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Who Was Jim Crow?

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The name Jim Crow appears throughout many U.S. history books. It's used in reference to both the laws that segregated Black and white Americans in the Southern United States and the region itself during the period when these laws were enforced. Jim Crow Laws and the Jim Crow South were very real from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries, but a real person named Jim Crow never existed. The name comes from a fictional character used to perpetuate racist stereotypes before the Civil War.

According to Ferris State University, a white performer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice originated the Jim Crow caricature in the 1830s. Rice, known as "the Father of Minstrelsy," would don blackface and affect an exaggerated African American dialect while performing his musical act. Jim Crow was meant to be a racist stereotype of an enslaved person: Like many minstrel personas that came after him, the character was portrayed as a clumsy buffoon.

Though Rice didn't invent minstrelsy, his success helped popularize the stage show format. Inspired by Rice, other minstrel actors borrowed his Jim Crow routine, and soon whites were using the name as a derogatory term for African Americans.

Even after slavery was abolished and minstrel shows faded into obscurity, the Jim Crow character lived on as a label. According to History, the first Jim Crow laws were passed in the Reconstruction Period as a way to limit the rights and resources of newly freed Blacks in the South. Such laws imposed literacy tests on Black voters, segregated public schools, and made it legal for businesses to segregate their customers by race.

How exactly these laws became associated with Jim Crow is unclear, but the phrase Jim Crow Laws was being used by the late 19th century. An 1892 article from The New York Times used the wording when reporting on Louisiana's segregated railroad cars.

Though most people may not be aware of the name's origins, Jim Crow still comes up today when discussing this dark period in U.S. history and its lasting effect on the country.

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