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- Perforating paddle
- This unusual wooden paddle with a nail-studded leather face was likely used by the postal workers in Montgomery, Alabama, around 1897 and possibly 1899 to perforate mail in preparation for fumigation as a precaution against yellow fever, mistakenly believed at that time to be caused by germs. After perforation, mail was fumigated with sulphur fumes before being returned to the mail stream.
- Yellow fever, an infectious disease caused by a virus, can kill within a few days of onset. 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.
- In the United States, mail was sometimes 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. Health agencies viewed mail with suspicion, believing that somehow the letters and newspapers could carry a disease from infected areas into healthy ones.
- 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 nineteenth 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.
- The Post Office Department transferred the paddle to the Smithsonian when it closed its postal museum in 1911. The paddle’s side bears a label from that museum and a paper on the handle has a typed description: “Device used for perforating the mail during yellow fever epidemics,” which closely matches the information in the Smithsonian’s documentation from the time of the object’s accession. The date and location of use or manufacture of this device are not in the accession file, however, an attribution to Montgomery, Alabama, has been derived by museum curators from a paper with handwritten text and an illustration that were added to the back of the paddle and includes the descriptor “[Used?] by the [Post?] of Montgomery.” This was likely attached to the item sometime after its use during one or more of the outbreaks in the southeast in 1897 and 1899 when yellow fever swept through Montgomery, Alabama. References to treatment of the mail in the city were recorded by contemporary and postal historians. Although the hand-drawn illustration is evocative of multiple mosquitos, the four-headed, sharp-toothed creature is a fictious depiction of a pathogen. The drawing’s creator labeled the imagined “germ” as: “Bacillus Horriblius / Multa Dentura / (Yellow Fever Germ) / Reduced 500 Diam."
- Leibowitz, Ed. “Special Delivery.” Smithsonian (February 2004): 30-31.
- Meyer, Karl F. Disinfected Mail. Holton, Kansas: The Gossip Press, 1952.
- Pearson, Emmet F. and Wyndham Miles. “Disinfection of Mail in The United States.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 54, no. 1 (1980): 111–24.
- Data Source
- National Postal Museum
- c. 1897-1899
- Object number
- Mail Processing Equipment
- wood; metal; leather; paper
- Height x Width x Depth: 13 3/8 x 4 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (34 x 10.5 x 4.5 cm)
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- National Postal Museum Collection
- On View
- Currently on exhibit at the National Postal Museum
- The Gilded Age (1877-1920)
- Mail Processing
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