This unusual looking paddle was used by the Board of Health in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899 to perforate mail in preparation for fumigation as a precaution against yellow fever, an infectious disease actually caused by a virus. Yellow fever can kill within four to eight days of the onset of the disease. It is characterized by severe high fever, head and backaches and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin which results from the destruction of liver cells, resulting in the accumulation of yellow bile pigments in the skin.
Fears of epidemics that kill thousands in short spans of time has, over centuries, led people to try various ways to contain the spread of a disease. In the new world, ships (and the mail they carried) were first quarantined and disinfected in 1647 to stave off a yellow fever epidemic in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since then American mail has been quarantined, disinfected, fumigated with formalin gas or sulphur fumes, treated with carbonic acid, sterilized and baked in assorted attempts to thwart epidemics
Uncertain or mistaken about the source of some diseases, citizens, doctors and health officials usually agreed that possible contagions should, at least, be quarantined and inspected. In the United States, mail has been treated in attempts to halt the spread of a number of deadly diseases, including yellow fever, smallpox, plague, typhus, cholera, diphtheria, measles, leprosy, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, influenza and even mumps. In some instances, mail was fumigated by sulphur fumes after having been punctured with a paddle such as this.
To contain a yellow fever epidemic in Florida in 1888, the Supervisory Surgeon General asked that all outgoing people, baggage and mail be subject to inspection. 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.
Yellow fever outbreaks were common in the 19th century, and it was not until 1881 that doctors first considered the theory that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquito bites. A Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, was the first to present this hypothesis, which was finally verified in 1901. Although there is still no known treatment for yellow fever, Dr. Max Theiler developed a vaccine for the disease in 1939.
Written by Nancy A. Pope, July, 2003
The Yellow Flag: How Yellow Fever Once Affected the Mail
Addendum by Curator Lynn Heidelbaugh, February 1, 2023
Further research conducted in 2020 and 2023 has pointed to the use of this paddle by postal employees rather than workers of a board of health as according to histories and contemporary news articles describing the treatment of mail during late-nineteenth-century epidemics. Neither the date nor location of the use or manufacture of the device is on record in the accession file when this item was transferred to the Smithsonian collection from the Post Office Department in 1911. However, “Montgomery” is handwritten on the paper, applied to the back of the paddle, is probably the source of the location’s attribution to Alabama. Yellow fever swept through communities in Montgomery, Alabama, and southeastern states in 1897 and 1899, and this device may have been used in one or both of those years. A more complex version of equipment was depicted as a punching machine in the illustrated news article “Killing Yellow Fever Germs in the Mail” in the autumn of 1897 (The Age-Herald. [volume] (Birmingham, Ala.), 29 Sept. 1897. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072192/1897-09-29/ed-1/seq-5/). Postal workers treated the mail in Montgomery, Alabama, during 1897 according to Ed Leibowitz, “Special Delivery,” Smithsonian (February 2004): 30-31; and in 1899 according to Karl F. Meyer, Disinfected Mail, Holton, Kansas: The Gossip Press, 1952, and Emmet F. Pearson and Wyndham Miles, “Disinfection of Mail in The United States,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 54, no. 1 (1980): 111–24. For additional sources on, see also: Charles T. Ambrose, “Osler and the infected letter,” Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet] 2005 May [accessed January 31, 2023] http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1105.040616; and, Ryan Ellis, “Disinfecting the Mail: Disease, Panic, and the Post Office Department in Nineteenth-Century America,” Information & Culture 52, no. 4 (2017): 436–61.