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400 years of Disinfected Mail

In the time of the plague, cholera and yellow fever, letters were smoked, baked or dipped in vinegar in an effort to prevent the diseases from spreading. Auktionshaus Felzmann will be including 277 disinfected mail covers in its July auction.

These days, if you were to receive a letter in which holes were punched or incisions made or which was covered with stains, you would probably be on the phone to the postal authorities right away. 400 years ago, however, this was perfectly normal for people worldwide. In those days, people believed that diseases such as the plague, cholera and yellow fever could be spread by post. Because of this, the postal authorities and the state attempted to disinfect all letters that came from areas in which epidemics had broken out.

For instance, yellow fever spread in Spain between 1804 and 1805, while cholera broke out in Germany in 1831 and the plague in India in 1899. This meant that all postal consignments were redirected to quarantine stations where they were disinfected – by smoking them with a special powder, dipping them in vinegar or baking them in an oven.

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In this map, you can see from what country the mail came and to which destination country it was forwarded. The red arrows show the route via Malta, the blue ones via Zemun (Serbia). Screenshot: Google Earth

Incisions were made and holes punched in the letters beforehand so that the contents remained intact but the viruses and germs were killed. Philatelist Gerhard Binder, who is overseeing the collection, explains: "The population was kept regularly informed about the latest infection areas – consulates would send weekly reports to the authorities containing information". The authorities’ instructions were then sent to the responsible officials so that people could be informed.

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This patent was sent to the authorities. It states that people from Hungary and Transylvania were not allowed to enter the country owing to the rampant spread of plague there.

This also includes an eight-page set of instructions from 1738 (Lot 5150). This “patent” from Christian VI, King of Denmark and Norway, ordered that people from Transylvania and Hungary were prohibited from entering the country owing to the "spread of contagious plague" and that goods – as opposed to letters – were to be burnt. This item is one of 277 pieces of disinfected mail material – also known as cholera mail – going under the hammer at Auktionshaus Felzmann during its Anniversary Auction between 2 and 6 July 2019.

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

As philatelist Gerhard Binder explains: "Before the letters were delivered to the intended recipients, they were diverted to quarantine stations – for example mail travelling via the Mediterranean route was rerouted to Malta or, in the case of letters travelling via the Balkan route, to Zemun in Serbia”. As well as incisions and other traces, many disinfected letters also bore stamps from quarantine stations such as "Purifié à …" ("purified in …"). A prime example of this is the following letter (Lot 5005), which was sent in 1845 from Alexandria to Marseille and disinfected in Malta. This specimen has two vertical incisions and bears the stamped wording "Purifié au Lazaret Malta" ("Purified in the quarantine area in Malta")

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In the middle of this letter to Marseille, the two vertical incisions made by the quarantine stations are clearly visible.

With the discovery of antibiotics, the diseases were combated efficiently. However, postal authorities were even disinfecting letters and postal consignments as recently as the early 21st century. The most common example in recent times is the anthrax attacks of 2001 in the USA. One week after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, letters infected with anthrax spores were sent to news stations and senators, infecting 22 people, five of whom died. Because of this, all post sent to the authorities in Washington was irradiated. This also included two specimens that are now being auctioned (Lot 5050 and Lot 5051).

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Even circulars and advertising – such as this flyer – that was sent to the authorities in Washington were irradiated for security reasons.

For example, Lot 5050 contains a flyer that, after being irradiated, was delivered in a plastic bag with printed explanations for customers about how the mail was treated by the postal authorities. This government information described the disinfection process as well as apologising for the delayed delivery and possible damage to CDs or medication that was rendered ineffective.

Why not bid for a piece of postal and contemporary history? All lots in the "disinfected mail" section can be found among lot numbers 5001-5277 in the online catalogue.

Further specimens can be found in the picture gallery: