Mangling the Mail to Save It

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Perforating paddle

Postal or board of health workers used this unusual wooden paddle with a nail-studded leather face to perforate mail in preparation for fumigation as a precaution against yellow fever during the late nineteenth century.

In an attempt to contain a yellow fever epidemic in Florida in 1888, the postmaster general agreed to fumigate all mail leaving the state. Letters were perforated with paddles, newspapers loosened, and the mail scattered on wire netting shelves in a railway mail car. After placing sulfur in iron kettles in the car and igniting it, employees closed up the mail car doors to let the fumes do their work.

US mail has been subject to treatments during misguided attempts to halt the spread of many different diseases, including yellow fever, smallpox, plague, typhus, cholera, diphtheria, measles, leprosy, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, influenza, and even mumps. Until the true nature of these diseases' causes and reach were identified, many health agencies viewed mail with suspicion. They believed that the letters and newspapers could carry a disease from infected areas into healthy ones.