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American Social Hygiene Association History and a Forecast

Ed. Note: This entry is an extensive history of the early years of the American Social Hygiene Association.  The exact date of the report is not known; however, it is sometime immediately after World War I. 

The Case Against the Red Light
The Case Against the Red Light” (1920)
Photo: M 9 Box 54, Folder “Social Hygiene” Adèle Goodman Clark papers, 1849-1978
Virginia Commonwealth University.

Many of the founding members continued to be active participants.

Introduction: At the beginning of the twentieth century venereal disease was a prevalent concern for social health organizations. Diseases such a syphilis and gonorrhea affected many people and the social stigma attached to sexually transmitted disease prevented most people from discussing or addressing means of treatment for venereal disease. In 1913, at a conference in Buffalo, New York, several organizations dedicated to fighting prostitution and venereal disease joined together to form the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Key figures in the initial organization included John D. Rockefeller, Jr., initial financial contributor; Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University; Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House; Dr. William Snow, Stanford University professor and secretary of the California State Board of Health; Dr. Thomas Hepburn, leader of the Connecticut social hygiene movement; David Starr Jordan, chancellor of Stanford University; James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore; philanthropist, Grace H. Dodge; and R. Fulton (Robert Fulton) Cutting of New York. The association was established to stop the venereal disease epidemic by educating the public about sexually transmitted infections, working to break down the social stigma attached to VD, and encouraging high moral standards. In 1914, ASHA established its national headquarters in New York City, a western division office in San Francisco, and a central states division office in Chicago.

The History and Forecast follows:






Honorary President: CHARLES W ELIOT

Honorary Vice Presidents

MISS JANE ADDAMS                                                         O.  EDWARD JANNEY, M.D.

NEWTON D.  BAKER                                                          DAVID STARR JORDAN

R.  FULTON CUTTING                                                       JULIUS ROSENWALD

JAMES CARDINAL GIBBONS                                          WILLIAM H.  WELCH, M.D.

President: HERMANN M.  BIGGS, M.D.


Vice Presidents

JOHN J EAGAN                                                                   FELIX M.  WARBURG

CYRUS H.  McCORMICK                                                   RYAN LYMAN WILBUR, M.D.

Treasurer: JEROME D.  GREENE


Secretary: DONALD R.  HOOKER, M.D.


THOMAS M.  BALLIET                                                      JAMES PEDERSON, M.D.

MAURICE A.  BIGELOW                                                    ROCKWELL H.  POTTER

HUGH CARBOT, M.D.                                                        ROSCOE POUND

MRS.  HENRY D.  DAKIN                                                   GEORGE D.  PRATT

WILLIAM A.  EVANS, M.D.                                                COL F.  F.  RUSSELL

LIVINGSTON FARRAND, M.D.                                        WILLIAM F.  SNOW, M.D.

RAYMOND B.  FOSDICK                                                   MRS.  ANNA GARLIN SPENCER

HENRY JAMES                                                                     FRANCES J.  STODDART, M.D.

EDWARD L.  KEYES JR., M.D.                                           WALTER T.  SUMNER

MRS.  JAMES LEES LAIDLAW                                          C.  E.  A.  WINSLOW


General Director: WILLIAM F.  SNOW, M.D.








There was a time, well within the memory of most adults, when practically every American city had its red-light district.  It was  a “necessary evil,” in public opinion.  Now and then someone ventured to protest against its existence, but he was promptly cried down by those who considered themselves practical men, unwilling to flinch from reality, wise in the ways of the world.

“You can’t change human nature,” was their refrain.  If “the line” were abolished, worse things would take its place.  It was necessary to men-indeed, they even argued that it was necessary to women, a few of whom had to make a sacrifice to protect the rest.

Cities licensed “the business,” as prostitutes call their profession.  Fathers not rarely gave money to their adolescent boys and advised a visit to some parlor-hours as a means of sexual education and “preserve their health.”

The institution of “white slavery” has its apologist just as had chattel slavery in the South a generation before.  It always had existed; it always must exist; some person were born different from others and intended by nature to be slaves; interference with it would destroy property values; prostitution was “the oddest business in the world,” anyhow; no one but a visionary would think of interfering with the status quo.

Then slowly, here and there, the light of scientific inquiry was turned on “the district.”  Its white beams made the red lights look redder than before- an angry, bloody, unhealthy red.  Some thoughtful persons became uneasy.  Perhaps they had been misled into thinking that this ancient institution could not be interfered with.  It ought to be looked into.

Investigations began.  They were made by intelligent men and women who represented all sorts of professions and interests.  Indeed, aside from a desire to learn the truth, the various investigating committees in America have had only one thing in common:  whatever their previous convictions, the members always finished their investigation with a profound conviction that the whole theory of a “necessary evil” was false.

They found that this supposedly fundamental social institution was a most artificial product.  It existed solely by virtue of political corruption, stimulation of trade through advertising, and a white slave traffic to supply the artificially created demand.

The revelations of these committees furnished material to suit the most lurid journalist or novelist for many years.  But if they presented a picture that was terrible and heart-stirring, on the other had they gave ground for intelligent belief that the monster was not invincible.  Its legend was a superstition of a primitive society.

The men of one Australian tribe were taught that if any of them should allow a women to see the sacred ritual paraphernalia he and his mothers and sisters would drop dead.  For a long time this taboo was entirely effective.  No one dared take the risk.  But when some man finally did show the sacred sticks to a woman and nothing happened, the bogey died a sudden death.

So Americans began to brush away the cobwebs of superstition and to consider the subject in the light of reason.  They saw that cities which had no commercialized prostitution were not given over to crime and debauchery,- in fact they seemed to be better off.  The investigating committees reported that prostitution was not a necessary evil; that it was an absolutely unnecessary evil, and much more evil than had been realized: for practically every prostitute was found to be diseased, and the must talked-of “medical inspection” was seen to be futile if not, as most frequently, dishonest.

Out of the various suggestions made to eliminate this “social evil,” tow general lines of campaign developed in America, as they had somewhat earlier in England.  One endeavor primarily to repress prostitution and abolish the white slave traffic; the others spread education regarding sex and the venereal diseases in America the outstanding pioneers n connection with these movements, even from the earliest days, presented many different professions and interests.  These men and women created a number of local organizations which gradually coalesced in two national bodies, representing the two branches, the American Vigilance Association, fighting prostitution, and the American Federation for Sex Hygiene, fighting sex ignorance and disease

These two national societies prosecuted their work with success until it became clear in 1913, that the community of interest between them made advantageous a merger into one greater and stronger society.  A joint meeting of the American Vigilance Association and the American Federation of Sex Hygiene was called at Buffalo, and there a union was effected under the name “social hygiene,” first used by a Chicago society.  Thus in 1914 “The American Social Hygiene Association” came into existence under the membership corporations law of New York State, taking over the fields of work, the problems and the obligations of both the parent organizations.  Later the national association merged with the New York Social Hygiene Society, which was one of the oldest bodies in the field of social hygiene, having been founded (1905) by Dr.  Prince A.  Morrow under the name of the Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis.  Historically the consolidation of the two wings of the attack on the multitude of social hygiene problems must be considered a great strategic value, making for unity of action and breadth of scope.

At the beginning of the war, the American Social Hygiene Association had become definitely established as the representative national association dealing with problems constituting the general field of social hygiene.  But the question of combating venereal diseases had become so imperative that a large part of the time and effort of the Association was being directed toward this one object.  Each additional bit of evidence and research showed conclusively that the menace of syphilis and gonorrhea has assumed alarming proportions; yet there were few serious diseases with which medical science was better qualified to cope, so fare as technical knowledge alone went.  Everything necessary was known about the mode of infection, the methods of diagnosis, and the methods of treatment.

The American Social Hygiene Association had long been urging that the failure of civilized nations to deal adequately with these diseases was due to a failure to regard them from the point of view of preventive medicine.  The most important thing, it argued is to prevent people from being exposed to infection.  Now it was thoroughly demonstrated that syphilis and gonorrhea are spread mainly by prostitutes; that practically every prostitute is infected.  An theory and experience alike has down that it is entirely possible, by the application of a well-planned, many-sided program, to prevent men from exposing themselves to prostitutes.  In this way the causes, rather than merely the effects, were reached.

Meanwhile, the European nations at war had been suffering losses from venereal disease which enormously decreased their efficiency in combat.  Military and civilian alike in the United States felt that the army which this nation was raising could not be wasted by exposures to the ravages of diseases that are entirely preventable; and the nation’s men of science were called on to outline measures by which this loss of man-power could be avoided.

The trained personnel of the American Social Hygiene Association nearly all volunteered for service in the army or navy and became assigned to the combating of venereal diseases.  The Association secured from private sources some half a million dollars with which it was able to supplement the governmental efforts by cooperating with official agencies that were promoting the campaign in and around military and naval establishments.

The measures adopted were so successful that the losses is efficiency were kept below what any one had expected, and it came to be generally realized that, while there is no single panacea for the venereal diseases, they can be kept in control by a fourfold campaign that embraces law enforcement, medical treatment, sex education, and wholesome reaction, – a program that is now often spoken of as the “American plan.”

The Association is now back on a peacetime program, but greatly enlarged and strengthened by its own experience as well as that of the nation generally during the war.  The program of which it has long been an advocate has proved itself successful beyond all expectations, and has been adopted in substance and expressed in terms of legislation and administrative organization by almost every state in the Union.  The Association finds, however, that the need for its services increased rather than diminished by the extension of public interest in the problems to which it is devoted, and that is aid in creating public opinion, in testing out new methods and examining new experiments, is felt by official and unofficial agencies alike to be more useful than ever.


Social hygiene divides into many sections, each presenting a somewhat specialized field of work, but all directly related.  The central purpose uniting them is the cultivation of a healthier, more normal sex life among people generally, and conversely the elimination of prostitution, venereal diseases, and pathological sex conditions of whatever type.

While the development of a campaign against prostitution and its attendant venereal diseases deals with only a part of social hygiene, the Association has made this its main activity, because of the urgency of the need, and because few other agencies were devoting attention to it, as they were to many other parts of the subject.  Ignorance, prudery, bigotry, indifference have allowed syphilis and gonorrhea to flourish; the Association is showing to communities the price that they pay and the relative ease with which this payment can be avoided, if the well-tried measures that have succeeded in the past are efficiently applied.  In particular it is believed that the campaign against venereal diseases should be made an integral part of the entire public health work of the community; that syphilis and gonorrhea should no longer be distinguished as “secret diseases,” to be mentioned only by evasive names, and left to quacks and patent medicine manufacturers for treatment.  When they are recognized calmly as dangerous, infectious, but preventable diseases, just as are typhoid and smallpox; when they are given their due share of attention without hysteria or guilty whispering the battle against them will be as good as won.

In practice the problems of prostitution and venereal diseases are hardly separable.  They form a many-sided menace, which can be overcome only by a mainly-sided campaign.  Any effort that neglects either law enforcement, medical measures, education, or recreation is likely to fail.  The Association is constantly insisting on all of these phases, although leaving recreating in the hands of agencies whose energies are wholly devoted to that subject.


To reduce commercial prostitution to a minimum, and to prevent the creation of new prostitutes, is the first step taken by most communities that are endeavoring to improve their social hygiene; hence the necessity for the Association’s Department of Investigation and Law Enforcement, which is a strong one.  Its trained investigators will, when desired, make a report on conditions in any community; such report is sometimes requested by around citizens who want to stir their lethargic officials to action; sometimes officials eager to discharge their duty seek it to gain the backing of an unenlightened public opinion.  In either case the department is able to show what measures have proved effective in other communities, and what measures have failed.  Sometimes a local committee is formed to back up honest officials and proceed against the dishonest.  Material aid is given in the drafting of new ordinances and laws and in devising means for proceeding against those who fatten indirectly off the profits of prostitution and are its chief bulwark in most communities.  Cooperating closely with the United State Public Health Service and the United States Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board, the department is ready to act in an advisory capacity in all matters pertaining to the enforcement of laws which fall in the general field of social hygiene.

While keeping a city clean is like keeping a house clean, a job that can not be done once for all, but requires constant vigilance, yet abundant experience has now proved that it is much easier than sometimes supposed, to repress prostitution.  It can only exist with police protection, active or passive; and when commercial prostitution exists in a city, it is there because public opinion is willing to have it there; not because it is unavoidable.


The medical work of the Association is carried on in the closest cooperation with federal agencies and the various city and state health departments.  In this field the Association acts as a clearing house of ideas, circulating information regarding better methods of treating those infected with venereal diseases.  This applies especially to the sociological and psychological treatment of the patients themselves, which is now recognized part of public health administration.

The medial staff of the Association give especial attention at present to encouraging communities to establish model venereal disease clinics as part of their public health administration, and to instituting adequate follow-up work in all places where syphilis and gonorrhea are treated, for much of the damage done by venereal diseases come through persons who think themselves cured, but are not.  The advice of this department of the medical aspects of the Association’s educational and law enforcement work is at all times an important function.

While the isolation of the carriers of infection is, from a medical point of view, the most important measure to control the spread of venereal diseases, and while prostitutes are by far the most important carriers, the Association is insisting that there be no sex bias, and particularly that men should be dealt with in the same spirit as women.  Under the American plan, men found with prostitutes are also examined for infection, and if found infected are equally, under cured.  Likewise, when the prostitute is convicted and punished for violating the criminal code, her male companion is given a similar sentence.  Altogether apart from the abstract justice involved, experience has abundantly proved that one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the volume of prostitution and the spread of venereal diseases is to make men recognize that the laws apply to both sexes alike.


Pamphlets, motion pictures, special exhibits, and lectures are used in educational work.  Every effort is being made to have this material presented forcefully to the general public, but without either sensationalism or prudery.  The Association is now returning to the past emphasis on sex education in institutions for formal instruction, namely high schools, normal schools, colleges and universities.  Much has been done of late to reach men and women in industry and this will be continued, but another field requiring study and experiment is now ready for cultivation:  the efforts to direct the attention of parents to the vital importance of instructing children in matters of sex health and morals are being renewed and redoubled.  Great assistance is expected to result from the research of the Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board in the matter and methods of sex education.  The Association is cooperating fully in this research, having undertaken not only general assistance wherever possible, but in particular to develop the motion pictures as a method of instruction.


This department was organized in 1917 as the Committee on Civilian Cooperation in Combating Venereal Diseases, of the Medical Section, Council of National Defense.  In 1918, it became the Section on Men’s Work, of the Social Hygiene Division, War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities.  Early in 1919 it was transferred to the American Social Hygiene Association.

The primary purpose of this department is to “sell” social hygiene to the public, just as an advertising agency may undertake to sell household good or wearing apparel.  It intends to create a demand for a new article.  Once the public has been interested to the point of desiring further particulars it is referred to the specialists of other branches of the Association, or to the local or state boards of health h particularly concerned, or to the United States Public Health Service.

Beyond this, the department has, of course been able to be of much use in getting pubic opinion to back up legislative or other campaigns, in providing proper information to the public press or correcting erroneous impressions arising from “quack” advertising which has also been openly fought, and in prompting community activities.  Indeed, its scope is continually expanding.

The educational and medical service campaign started on a large scale in industrial establishments during the war as a means of reducing venereal diseases, is being continued by a section of this department.  A standardized industrial program approved by the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service is produced by this section and is being placed in the hands of all employers who can be reached.

The department is equipped for close cooperation with governmental agencies.  Detailed to it is a coordinating officer of the United States Public Health Service whose duty it is to synchronize the activities of the Association with the general program of the federal government.


As a lineal successor of the former New York Social Hygiene Society, the Association has a New York Department to carry on work in the metropolitan area.  This department is studying the agencies at work in New York City (in collaboration with the Bureau of Social Hygiene) and is aiding wherever possible to make their work more effective.  Its more important opportunity, however, is to study experimentally the effect of different measures in a community that offers almost every possible variety of population and environment.  Experiments can be made here as in a gigantic laboratory, and the probable success or failure of new methods of education, for instance, can be much more accurately predicted after such an experiment.


Protective Social Measures. Among the other activities of the Association, one of the most important concerns protective social measures which may prevent girls from drifting or being dragged into a life of prostitution, and which will rehabilitate them, if they have gone into prostitution.  The Association is carefully studying the work that has been done in American communities along these lines, and is giving the results of this study to communities that want to cut down the supply of prostitutes, as well as the demand for them.  The growing realization that most prostitutes are either feeble-minded or otherwise of abnormal mind, gives an increased interest to this kind of work.

Collection of Social Statistics. Phases of social hygiene comparatively new for the Association, but always recognized as a part of its general field, are the problems centering in protection of the family as an institution.  These phases include marriage, divorce, desertion, illegitimacy, prevention of conception and other means of family limitation.  A new branch of the Association deals with these subjects, beginning with a painstaking study of conditions and with an attempt to correlate the numerous agencies working for the protection of the family.  It will be necessary, before substantial results can be accomplished, to secure a consensus of opinion on the park of many organization, which may be directed toward any changes found to be sound and helpful.  To secure well-founded conclusions upon which modifications of law may be advocated will require considerable time.  For the present, therefore, this division of the Association is engaged mainly in research, organization, and conferences.

Periodicals. The quarterly, SOCIAL HYGIENE, and the monthly SOCIAL HYGIENE BULLETIN, are important features of the Association’s campaign for enlightenment.  SOCIAL HYGIENE is publication given over to the discussion of the fundamental problems of the field.  In it are published the results of research and experience and accounts of developments of first importance.  THE BULLETIN is a newspaper presenting to its readers the current events of the field each month.

Library. The Association’s library contains several thousand volumes and many more pamphlets.  The collection is especially interesting and strong on the subject of prostitution (including both confidential and official reports), sex education, and venereal diseases.  Laws relating to these questions are also on file.  Another section of the library contains valuable works on adolescence, biology, feeble-mindedness, marriage, divorce, heredity, and eugenics.  Reports from many charitable and reform institutions add much to the statistical data available.

Although intended primarily for reference use, books are freely lent to teachers, students, lecturers, parent, and those interested in any phase of social hygiene.  In addition to the books a valuable lantern-slide collection is maintained and constantly added to.  Those at a distance desiring books may secure them by mail.

International Relations. Since its foundation, the Association has kept in touch with foreign associations working in similar fields, and has been able to afford much aid to those in other countries.  It has had a representative in France from the beginning of the war, and sends special representatives to other countries from time to time, to report on progress there and exchange ideas.  At the present time Latin America and the Orient are particularly looking to the United State for information as to how they can decrease their losses from syphilis and gonorrhea and the Association is giving every assistance possible to groups in these countries.


The Association gladly extends all possible help to individuals and to private or public organization interested in any branch of social hygiene work.

Particularly does it wish to cooperate with groups in formation or already organized for the repression of prostitution and the control of venereal diseases; and with more general groups such as parent-teachers societies, educational clubs, and settlements.  Correspondence regarding activities, materials, and methods is invited from every quarter.

A community plan for organized social hygiene work is available in printed form, and many local communities are working effectively along the lines outlined.  Reading courses, books, pamphlets, papers, pictures, lantern slides, films, lecturers- these area few of the special service features of the Association.

Field representatives and workers are available from or may be secured through the Association, capable of coping with the many problems presenting themselves to those interested in the community problem.


Membership in the American Social Hygiene Association is open to any man or woman in this or any other country who believes that the broad principles of social hygiene should be energetically advanced in every way consistent both with established procedure and with new methods with give assurance of promoting social health and well-being.

The members elect annually a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and one third of a board of directors of twenty-one.  The directors serve three-year terms, meet quarterly, and elect annually, upon nomination by the president, an executive committee of seven of their number.  To the executive committee is entrusted the immediate supervision of all Association activities.

Members receive all periodicals and other publications of the Association, including its quarterly magazine, SOCIAL HYGIENE, and the SOCIAL HYGIENE BULLETIN.


The American Social Hygiene Association, Incorporated, is not a stock company and it not in business for profit.  It is a membership corporation organized under the laws of the state of New York.

The articles of incorporation, filed in March, 1914, state the purpose of the Association to be:  “To acquire and diffuse knowledge of the established principles and practices and of any new methods which promote or give assurance of promoting social health; to advocate the highest standards of private and public morality; to suppress commercialized vice; to organize the defense of the community by every available means, educational, sanitary, or legislative, against the diseases of vice; to conduct on request inquiries into the present condition of prostitution and the venereal diseases in American towns and cities; and to secure mutual acquaintance and sympathy and cooperation among the local societies for these of similar purposes.”


The war gave a mighty forward shove to the social hygiene movement.  Under the pressure of necessity great advances were made and public opinion followed close behind.  Men and women displayed a surprising willingness to handle without gloves a subject formerly considered unmentionable.  Certainly a fair promise of success in fighting venereal diseases has been attained under war stimulus.  But peace must carry on with greater intensity a work which calls for a redoubling of effort on the part of the public.

What will the future be?  From the great mass of evidence at hand it seems certain that the United States will assume a place of leadership among nations in war for national health.  It is not too optimistic to picture a time in the future when every community will not have learned the necessity for, and the value of keeping clean.

There are many hopeful signs pointing to a time when commercialized prostitution will have disappeared; when communities will provide adequate and really desirable recreation and amusement for the well, and scientific treatment for the sick, and when both youth and adult will receive sound education in order that all may contribute in a larger measure to the welfare of society.

It will always be the aim of the Association to cooperate with governmental and private agencies, to give the broadest possible publicity to the vital facts concerning prostitution and venereal disease, to encourage sound sex education, to bring communities to their own relief through their efforts, and to give help to every forward effort, however small.

To fulfill its aims and trust, the Association must have the support of all who are building for the future.

Source: American Social Health Association Records, 1905-2005. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

For Further Reading:

The Case Against the Red Light” (1920), a pamphlet created by the American Social Hygiene Association for the United States Public Health Service

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