Vintage Venous Videos: messages of (post)war blood donation

Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Initially romanced by shipwrecks of the Northern California coast, I came across the British Pathe Film Archives. Thereafter, in a state of continued curiosity I searched for footage on blood donation and found a practical gold mine of vintage film clips that offer a rewarding peek into donor outreach and education in its earlier years.

It seems the message has always been that donation is a life-saving act. However, when looking at these videos as artifacts of donor outreach and education we must ask the question: whose lives are we saving? In viewing the development of campaigns over time, the answer is constantly different. From this set of videos primarily taken during or shortly after World War II we can see how this message has changed.

At first, the primary message was to save a man you love, i.e. a soldier. Another wartime video punctuates this, admonishing, “Don’t let him down” as an image of a man in a stretcher appears on screen. The wartime connection to blood donation not only relates to treating the wounded, but it also pertains to military notions of service. In fact, the ways that we have honored first responders and servicemen (and women) as heroes at the same time we have valorized donation as an act of heroism, directly links to this. Right up to present day, it also resonates with military mobilization around donation, partly because of this historical involvement (and dependence) on donation.

This 1947 trailer makes a transitional turn. It opens with how blood donation saved soldiers but then switches focus. It asserts that blood is still needed, “Almost as much as they need it during the war.” Now, it’s about the “battle against disease” and “to fight for the lives of sick babies. This war never stops.” The final image is the slogan “Lifeblood is still urgently needed.”

Again, this 1946 clip demonstrates how campaigns were re-fashioning the message of donation in the aftermath of war. It opens with a potentially fatal automobile crash (which nowadays sometimes characterizes the trauma victim not as the recipient but as a potential deceased organ donor), and then lays out other scenarios where blood transfusions are needed. It pays its debts to transfusion as a wartime development. Yet in closing, it reiterates, “a supply is just as vital now as it was during the war.” It shifts the emphasis to “mothers and children” as the primary lives potentially saved through blood donation.

Later on, we see this 1949 trailer completely focuses on saving a toddler’s life.It also offers a glimpse at some fantastic old school blood donation campaign posters. Yet blood donation recapitulates soldierly imperatives. This Korean War clip reports on over 2000 pints collected from servicemen. Interestingly, its concluding note is that the conflict may be coming to an end, “but blood works miracles in peace and those who gave in war will continue their gift.”  In a way, the different messages about whose lives are saved become cyclical.

The archive has a couple other tidbits worth checking out. It proves celebrity endorsement for donation is nothing new, for one. The footage of Sophia Loren being a blood donor,  dressed to the nines, bouquet in one hand and flask of donated blood in the other, is totally priceless.  The Moroccan blood donation process, from needle manufacture to shipping off the flasks of blood, is also a fascinating watch.  Not to mention the amazing shots of airdrop pamphleteering for blood donation in Indochina. It also strikingly captures racially diverse participants in the transfusion process.

Although these films are a step back into the past, they may also provide some inspiration for the future. Knowing what has come before can help us understand how a particular historical moment can shape the way donation campaigns craft certain messages. There may even be some nuggets here that can be forged into a retro cool aesthetic for a new campaign. And it suggests potential exhibits that might showcase these artifacts to educate the public about  historical themes in health outreach. This could also serve as an opportunity to increase awareness about present day importance of donor registration.

3 Responses to “Vintage Venous Videos: messages of (post)war blood donation”
  1. nmajca says:

    Donating blood is a noble thing to do, but it doesn’t come without side effects, which are usually downplayed. Nevertheless, I’ve had a pretty negative experience the first time I donated blood. Then I decided to learn more about possible side effects and write it all down for others to see. You can read more about it here:

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