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Medicine - Desinfected Mail from Izmir

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A transfer docket with an early chisel incision for disinfection, sent from Izmir to Vienna in 1789 – the main message, folded in the envelope, remains sealed and has never been read.

 

Manuscript letter in dark brown ink on handmade paper (21 x 8 cm / 8.2 x 3.1 inches), originally folded and cut through in three places, enclosed within a custom-made envelope labeled in manuscript in dark brown ink, originally sealed, cut through (6.5 x 9 cm / 2.6 x 3.5 inches) (Very Good, slightly stained).

 

 

Description

This is a handwritten transfer docket in Italian, accompanied with a message, folded into an envelope, written in Izmir, Ottoman Empire, in 1789, by the Roux Frères, a trading company, headquartered in Marseille, France. It is addressed to a Georgi Haggi Zučka (or Georgi Hagi Zucca), probably a Romanian tradesman, in Vienna.

The sealed message, folded as an envelope, has never been opened or read.

From the collection of the late Herry W. Schaeffer (1934 – 2016), renowned collector of Ottoman and postal history.

 

Fighting Epidemics – Desinfecting the Mail

 

“The post they accepted from the messenger, but with every measure of precaution. A small fire of ‘aromatic woods’ was lit on the kapia and produced an abundant white smoke. The gendarmes took each individual letter in a pair of tongs and passed it through this smoke. Only such ‘purified’ letters were sent onward.”

(Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina)

 

The days prior to the ground-breaking discoveries in the field of contagious diseases in the mod-to-late19th century, and when the importance of personal hygiene was yet to be appreciated, various desperate and, in most cases, ineffective methods were employed to stop the spread of cholera and plague.

One of the most popular methods in the Ottoman Empire was purifying the mail.
During this procedure, as letters went through customs, they were pierced with a sharp chisel through their sealed middle portions and held over fumes in order to supposedly disinfect the paper. This method was especially favoured in port cities and was also practiced in many places beyond the Ottoman Empire. In addition to letters, other imported goods (parcels, crates) were the object of intense suspicion for transmitting diseases and were often, out of an abundance of caution, placed in a quarantine.

The medical doctor and traveler, Frederick Forbes, in his book, Thesis on the Nature and History of Plague, as Observed in the North Western Provinces of India … To which are Added, Remarks on the Present State of the Quarantine Laws (Edinburgh, 1840), described the ridiculousness of this practice:

“The utter absurdity and mischievousness of the process used for the supposed disinfection of letters and papers, by cutting them to pieces, and smoking, bleaching, and defacing them, until they are frequently rendered illegible…” (Forbes, p. 93).

 

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