Visual rhetoric: Photographs of the feeble-minded during the eugenics era, 1900-1930

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Robert Bogdan


Photography, Eugenics era, Kallikak Family photographs, Clinical photography, Visual rhetoric

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


The eugenics era, 1900-1930, often referred to as the indictment or genetic alarm period, was a time when mental retardation professionals concerned themselves with describing, explaining, and controlling a class of persons called "feeble-minded."

Current scholarship has largely overlooked the many photographs that were made during this period. This study collected 1,233 photographs from books, journals, and archival sources, of people labeled "feeble-minded." Using a constructionist theoretical framework, and qualitative methods of analysis, these photographs were studied in order to analyze how they were used by eugenicists to illustrate feeble-mindedness, its problems and solutions.

Overall, the photographs may be described as "clinical," and the work of amateurs--possibly eugenicists themselves. Prominent images and conventions identified in the photographs include: the helping hand, stick imagery, gape and other mouth irregularities, posture, clothing and hovel imagery.

Various clinical types such as microcephaly, mongolism, and cretinism were found to be illustrated in conventionalized ways. These images and conventions of feeble-mindedness were also used to illustrate the various classification schemes developed by eugenicists which were found to rely more on editorial conventions or "modes of presentation" than on characteristics of the subjects themselves.

A number of techniques of visual exaggeration were identified. These include the mutually amplifying juxtaposition, print cropping, grouping, and before-after displays. Photographic techniques used to promote institutions are identified, such as before-after displays, showing potential troublemakers gainfully occupied, and presenting institution characters and celebrities. Finally, The Kallikak Family photographs were analyzed as a case study in eugenic indictment propaganda.

The concept of "visual rhetoric" was found to unify the analysis of the photographs which were used not only to illustrate the claims but to exaggerate the persuasive impact these claims might have on potential readers. Implications for the use of visual rhetoric in constructing "mental retardation" today were discussed.


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