Hygiene in times of war

Hygiene in times of war

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  • The squad barber

    CUVILLE Fernand (1887 - 1927)

  • War hygiene


The squad barber

© Ministry of Culture -Mediathèque of architecture and heritage, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Fernand Cuville

To close

Title: War hygiene

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1918

Date shown: 1918

Dimensions: Height 55 cm - Width 50 cm

Technique and other indications: lithography

Storage location: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (MuCEM) / Gérard Blot Link to image

Picture reference: 04-509738 / 74.74.16D

© RMN-Grand Palais (MuCEM) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: April 2020

Historical context

The body mobilized in the Great War

Between 1914 and 1918 with the total mobilization of minds and bodies, the war gradually erased the border between the military front and the domestic front. The presence in the uniform of more than eight million men moved a whole part of society in the trenches: everyday scenes were now taking place in the open air, such as the barber session seized by Fernand Cuville (1887-1927 ). Then president of the School of Nancy, in French Lorraine, the draftsman and designer as early as 1914 put his art and his fame at the service of the cultural mobilization of soldiers and civilians.

Image Analysis

Bodies to the test on all fronts

Patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903 and marketed in 1907, the Autochrome process was quickly used by the Archives de la Planète project. So it was only natural that, together with his colleague Paul Castelnau, Fernand Cuville chose to document the ravages of war and the daily life at the front - even if this required a much longer exposure time than the snapshot of Kodak cameras. The contrasts are not perfect: the general color is pale and grayish. But the effect of reality is striking with a well-centered framing, light effects (shadow), earthmoving tools on the ground and those of the barber, placed on a bench of rough wood. The blurry landscape in the background avoids the crucial question for the families of the position: we are nowhere, and everywhere on this 800 km long front. One detail seems to argue for the fact that we see an itinerant barber at work: the uniform he wears is much less covered in mud than that of the three soldiers who await his good offices.

The panel War hygiene is a blue monochrome lithograph on a white background. The upper half is occupied by an interior scene with the title in the center of the image. In the lower third, a text specifies a number of food-type recommendations. Finally, in line with Art Nouveau, of which Nancy was one of the cradles in France, the bottom of the image is decorated with a border of foliage and the lettering is stylized in vegan fashion. The meal represented is served by a woman to her four children: three boys and a girl. She is standing while they are seated around a large square table, surmounted by a suspension lamp, in a comfortable interior (tablecloth, imposing china cabinet, picture hanging on the wall, domestic dog). Nothing connotes war, then, except the absence of a male figure. This obvious off-screen to the reader of 1918 is defused by the general good humor aroused by the offering of steaming potatoes and fresh water. This simple happiness is in line with the text which recommends eating less, less fat, and not to drink alcohol.


Victory for health

Cuville chose not to show the freshly shaven soldier, but the long-awaited moment of applying the soapy lather to his cheeks. The white that hides the face is that of hygiene and good health, not that of a bandage indicating surgery, pain or even mutilation. This white and that of the barber's shirt contrast sharply with the ubiquitous earth, including on the soldiers' shirts, and the horizon blue hue of their pants which must have blended into the background. By the time Cuville was touring the units, all of France knew under what conditions healthy men "played Indians" (Marc Bloch) in the open air. This sunny day was surrounded by many other less merciful ones; the trenches were cold and damp, uncomfortable, full of lice and fleas, sometimes far from mobile canteens. We lost our health and forgot the rules of hygiene. The passage of the barber was therefore both a collective festive snag in the canvas of the anxious routine of the front, a moment of relaxation, also a reminder of civilian life and sanitary standards.

At the height of his career as a painter, illustrator and designer, Victor Prouvé did not disdain official commissions. Better still, he seemed to be looking for them to show his patriotic commitment. Modest in size (65x49 cm), the panel War hygiene belonged to a series of 31 images such as Produce or The Peasant Effort, The laboratory or Be patient, be stubborn (the lesson from the front), which had to be put up in the classrooms. After three and a half years of war, War hygiene is trying the tour de force to transform into principles of healthy eating what was imposed by the shortage. This propaganda campaign against waste and for deprivation goes through children, known to be sensitive to treats, to better reach parents. Both a measure taken against the temptation of the black market and a tool for intervention in the balance of meals, the sign is also part of the official arsenal to preserve the most precious national asset: the generation which must allow the country to compensate for the abysmal human losses. Health for all, and everything for health - such is the legacy of the Great War to the French population.

  • War of 14-18
  • soldiers
  • trenches
  • mobilization
  • autochrome
  • child
  • hygiene
  • hygienism


Joëlle Beurier, Photographing the Great War. France-Germany. Heroism and violence in magazines, Rennes, Rennes University Press, 2018.

Christophe Prochasson, Anne Rassmussen (dir.), True and false in the Great War, Paris, The Discovery, 2004.

Vincent Viet, Health at war, 1914-1918. A pioneering policy in an uncertain universe, Paris, Sciences Po University Press, 2015.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Hygiene in times of war"

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