22 January 2011

A history of disinfected mail

As soon as humans became aware that infectious diseases could be transmitted by fomites (inanimate objects), attention was directed to developing methods of disinfection. Postal and public health authorities had to deal with a wide variety of extremely dangerous infections (cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, leprosy, anthrax), and applied a surprising variety of techniques to letters and packages sent through the mails, beginning as early as the 15th century in Venice.

A very informative philatelic exhibit presents examples of how the U.S. has dealth with potentially dangerous items.  Shown at the top, for example, are two letters from locations where yellow fever was present; they have been punctured to allow fumigating agents to reach the inside of the envelope.  The bottom envelope in this image -
- had its corners clipped off so that formaldehyde gas could be introduced to kill smallpox.  Other letters and postcards were autoclaved or steam sterilized, which could be deleterious to the letters inside.

These precautions were not limited to the preantibiotic era.  In 2001 threats of anthrax attacks were made in the United States, and a variety of special precautions, including x-irradiation, had to be undertaken, beginning at this page of the exhibit and continuing for a dozen pages thereafter.  And these letters from Hawaii in 1900 show how holes were punched in the envelopes -
- so that sulfur fumes could be insufflated before they were sent from areas quarantined for bubonic plague.  Other examples are shown of disinfection of mail from the Hawaiian leper colony.

Philatelic exhibitions are conventionally mounted on a series of glass-fronted frames, with up to 16 letter-size pages in one frame, and in this case spread onto six frames.   This award-winning exhibit was created by William A. Sandrik of Arlington, Virginia.  The entire exhibit may be viewed at Exponet (frame 1, frame 2, frame 3, frame 4, frame 5, frame 6).

And those interested in philately (stamp and postal history collecting) should browse the Exponet site beginning at this index page.  Over 600 exhibits are accessible, on a huge variety of topics, in a wide variety of languages.

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