On January 16, 1934, the Pottstown Mercury reported, “Before a banner which depicted the blue eagle’s lightning bolt warring with numerous storks, Margaret Sanger today launched the first ‘American conference on birth control and national recovery.’” From reading other newspaper articles about speeches that Sanger gave in the 1930s, it seems that this banner became the symbol of the birth control movement. Unfortunately, in searching through all of our photographs from the 1930s here at the Sanger Papers and in the archives of the Library of Congress, I was unsuccessful in finding a picture of the actual banner anywhere. However, the journalists did a pretty good job describing it in detail, and from their descriptions we can still discuss the profound symbolism inherent in this banner.
Most of us are probably familiar with the stork fable¬¬—it is one of the most popular myths about the origin of children in the world. The fable is also well known throughout Europe and the Americas, and even reached some countries in the Far East (like the Phillipines). The origins of the myth can be traced back to the Ancient Mediterranean. Greek mythology portrays the stork as a model of parental devotion, the epitome of filial values. The Greek law called Pelargonia, from the Ancient Greek word pelargos for stork, required citizens to take care of their aging parents. Perhaps for this reason, the Greeks also held that killing a stork could be punished with death. The Romans dedicated the stork to the goddess Juno, the goddess of fertility and protector of women. Women who were barren prayed to her. The Hebrew word for stork, chasida, means “kind” or “merciful” one, apparently because of the positive attributes associated with the stork. This word has been in the Hebrew language since biblical times, thus attesting to the ancient roots of the stork legend.
In discussing the origin for the German word for stork, Grimm states that it reaches back to heathen times, concluding that the choice of meanings of the stem words is either “luck bringer” or “child bringer.” German folklore held that storks found babies in caves or marshes and brought them to households in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. The baby would either be delivered directly to the mother or dropped down the chimney. Households would notify when they wanted children by placing sweets for the stork on the window sill. This version of the fable has spread all over the world, and, of course, became popular in America as well.
The blue eagle has a lot of symbolism of its own. The Blue Eagle was a symbol used in the United States by companies to show compliance with the National Industrial Recovery Act, and was proclaimed the symbol of industrial recovery on July 20, 1933, by Hugh S. Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). In most NRA posters, the bird holds a gear, symbolizing industry, in its right talon, and bolts of lightning in its left talon, symbolizing power.
So, the stork, as we have seen, was the nearly universal symbol of childbirth and motherhood, and the blue eagle the icon of industrial/economic recovery in the wake of the Great Depression. The juxtaposition of these two images on the same banner is incredibly significant and very characteristic Margaret Sanger. Sanger famously theorized that most, if not all, of the world’s problems—food shortages, job shortages, even war– can be traced back to overpopulation. She believed that a widespread adoption of birth control would effectively decrease the world’s population and solve many of these issues. Therefore, her banner containing a blue eagle and its lightning bolt fighting off storks represents her belief that economic recovery can only be attained if we fight off the storks– if we can prevent pregnancy and put an end to overpopulation.
In her speech at the conference, Sanger explained the connection between these two birds:
“While the N.R.A. strives through its many codes to increase employment and thus to raise the purchasing power of the people in general, it does not provide for lightening the burden of the parents by reducing the number of mouths that each wage-earner must feed or which the public must feed for him. While the N. R. A. has ↑as↓ its emblem the blue eagle, I am afraid that the six million pauperized children have as their emblem a stork that has the blues.” (America Needs a Code for Babies, Mar. 27, 1934 – link to digital http://sangerpapers.org/sanger/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=101807.xml)
For Sanger’s opening address at the conference, see “Address of Welcome to the American Conference on Birth Control and National Recovery ,” 15 Jan 1934 (link http://sangerpapers.org/sanger/app/documents/show.php?sangerDoc=157134.xml)