Smithsonian National Postal MuseumTitle: The Pichs CollectionSan Carlos Institute
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Smithsonian National Postal Museum The Pichs Collection, Exploring Cuba's History Through Postage Stamps
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International Mail (1)

This folded letter was written at Havana on December 15, 1833, and taken to the Havana post office for dispatch. It was stamped “Havana,” an origin mark, and placed aboard the “Bergn de guerra/ Guadalupe” (Brigantine of war, Guadalupe). It was carried directly to Santander, on the northern Spanish coast, and there landed at the quarantine station.

In 1831, a wave of cholera plague had swept across Europe. Spain was not affected much until 1832. At that time, the government established quarantine stations, or “lazarettos,” along its borders with Portugal and France, as well as at the principal seaports. There were four types of lazarettos, but the type we are concerned with is the “lazaretto of expurgation.” This was the place where a traveller’s personal effects were taken and disinfection carried out on all their personal belongings.

Sanitation was primitive in those days. The causes of disease were not well known. It was thought that plagues were carried in the air and could be found in the air surrounding sick people.

In the case of mail, disinfection could be accomplished by several different techniques. One method was to immerse a letter in vinegar. Another was to just sprinkle it with vinegar. A third method was puncture each letter using a paddle with nails projecting, or make a slit in each letter with a sharp knife, and then place them in a sealed box. Sulfur fumes or a burning aromatic herb, such as juniper berry, were introduced into the box. The idea was that the holes or slits in the letters would allow the disinfectant to enter the letter and purify the air inside.

Tome I, p.2b: Havana to Santander, Spain. 15 December, 1833
(Red arrow added to indicate a fumigation cut).

As the arrow in the illustration indicates, this letter was disinfected by slitting and then fumigating. After fumigation, the mail was taken to the Santander post office where a clerk rated it as 5 reales de vellón postage due. This was the postage rate for a letter weighing up to 5 adarmes, per the Spanish Postal Tariff Law of 1807, still in force.

An adarme was an old unit of measure, the 16th part of an ounce (28.7 grams). One adarme was equal to 1.79375 grams. Five adarmes was equal to 8.96875 grams, or a little more than 1/4 ounce.

The “real de vellón” was not a coin but a unit of money for accounting purposes. It had a constant value of 34 maravedis or 8 1/2 cuartos. The addressee could pay the postage due with any coin he had. It just had to equal 5 reales de vellón.

The letter was not postmarked by a town datestamp of the Santander post office upon arrival, but the addressee noted inside that it was received on January 23, 1834, about five and a half weeks after it was written.

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