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400 years of disinfected mail

Letters were smoked, baked or dipped in vinegar - these were the means people used to try to fight the spread of plague, cholera and yellow fever. The Felzmann auction house auctioned 277 pieces of disinfected mail in July 2019.

If you discovered a letter in your letterbox today that had holes or nicks and was covered in stains, you would probably complain to the post office. But this was quite normal for people around the world 400 years ago. This is because it was once thought that diseases such as plague, cholera und yellow fever could be spread through the post. Therefore, the post office and the state treated all letters that came from areas where epidemics had broken out.

For example, yellow fever spread in Spain in 1804-1805, cholera broke out in Germany in 1831 and plague in India in 1899. All mail was therefore diverted to quarantine stations and disinfected there. This was achieved by smoking with smoking powder, dipping in vinegar and baking in an oven.

Karte von Google MapsBild vergrößern

On this map you can see where the mail, from which country, was routed to which destination country. The blue arrows show the route via Malta, the red ones via Semlin (Zemun). Screenshot: Google Earth

Incisions and holes were stamped and chiselled into the letters in advance so that the message was preserved but the viruses and germs were killed. "The population was regularly informed about the current infection areas, consulates sent reports with information to the authorities every week," explains philatelist and collection officer Gerhard Binder. The orders from the authorities were then sent to the relevant local offices for distribution and for people to take note of.

Siebenbürgen und Ungarn, gedrucktes Patent wegen der grassierenden ansteckenden Seuche, achtseitige königliche Anweisung mit Briefkopf "Christian der Sechste... König zu Dänemark und Norwegen", 1738, für die Gebiete Altona, Schleswig, über Umgang mit Pest Bild vergrößern

This patent went to the authorities. It states that people from Hungary and Transylvania are not allowed to enter due to the rampant disease.

This also included an eight-page service order from 1738 (lot 5150). By the "patent" of Christian the Sixth, King of Denmark and Norway, it was ordered that entry from Transylvania and Hungary was forbidden due to the "rampant contagious epidemic" there and goods, unlike letters, must be burned. This piece is one of the 277 items of disinfected mail, also called cholera mail, sold during the anniversary auction of the Felzmann auction house in July 2019.

Quarantänenhafen auf MaltaBild vergrößern

The mail that was disinfected in Malta came by sea. Here is a postcard showing the quarantine port.

"Before the letters reached the addressee, the mail was diverted to quarantine stations, for example, mail on the Mediterranean route via Malta, or letters via the Balkan route to Semlin, now Zemun, in Serbia“, explains philatelist Gerhard Binder. In addition to incisions and other marks, many disinfected letters also bear corresponding postmarks of the stations such as "Purifié a ..." (French: purified in ...). Like the following letter (lot 5005), sent from Alexandria to Marseille in 1845 and purified in Malta. This copy has two vertical cuts and the note "Purifié au Lazaret Malta".

Brief von Alexandria nach Marseille 6.6.45 mit vollem Inhalt, gedruckter Briefkopf "Magistrat de Santé en Egypte", arabischer BriefstempelBild vergrößern

In the middle of this letter to Marseille, the two vertical cuts through the quarantine stations are clearly visible.

With the discovery of antibiotics, diseases were fought efficiently. But even at the beginning of the 21st century, the postal service was still disinfecting letters and mail. Probably the best-known example in modern times is the anthrax attacks of 2001 in the USA. A week after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, letters contaminated with anthrax spores were sent to news stations and senators. 22 people were infected, five died as a result. Therefore, all mail sent to authorities in Washington was irradiated. This included two copies that were up for auction (lot 5050 and lot 5051).

Kundenerklärung der Post für desinfizierte Post, desinfizierte BriefeBild vergrößern

Even direct mail and advertisements, such as this leaflet that went to the authorities in Washington, were irradiated for safety.

Lot 5050 showed a brochure that was delivered to customers after irradiation in a plastic bag with printed explanations on how the mail was handled. On the foil, the government describes the disinfection process and apologises for the late delivery and possible damage to the enclosed CDs or non-effective medicines.

Here a part of postal and contemporary history was auctioned. All results of the auction of the area "Disinfected Mail" can be found in our catalogue archive.

You can find more pieces in the picture gallery:

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Peter Such

Philately and auctioneer
Phone:+49 (0)211 550 4414
Fax:+49 (0)211 550 4411

Language: German, English