George Thayer was a longtime member of the Hartford YMCA. During WWI, he went to France as a volunteer, staffing the recreation ‘huts’ that the YMCA ran there. Thayer was scandalized by what he found there, and wrote a series of letters back home – some published in the Hartford Courant – exposing the “deplorable” situation. What got him so mad?
Thayer complained about female Y volunteers in France spending all their time dancing – cheek to cheek, “Paris-style” – with officers. That might not seem so scandalous to a modern reader – but there’s more! Soldiers swore, drank, watched racy, blasphemous Hollywood films, and swapped dirty stories in the open. Many hotels were notorious for overnight rendezvous between soldiers and American or French women. “Surely,” he lamented, “army life….gradually eliminates the element of morality.”
Worst of all, the Y allowed the army to distribute treatment for venereal disease to enlisted men in its shelters and hotels. Thayer felt that this policy simply encouraged more promiscuity, and compromised the Y’s position as a Christian organization. He was so vocal in his complaining, in fact, that the Hartford YMCA threw him out of the organization.
Want to learn more? You can browse through Thayer’s papers (his letters make for amazing reading!) in our Research Center. And to learn more specifically about venereal disease and its effect on American troops, stop by the CHS on Saturday, August 18th at 1:00 pm for our gallery program, “YOU MUST GO HOME CLEAN!”: Venereal Disease During the War. We’ll look at photos, pamphlets and even film from this period to learn about the campaign to keep the US Army “the cleanest in the world”. This program is free with museum admission. Questions? Email Natalie Belanger, Adult Programs Manager, at [email protected] or call (860) 236-5621 x289.