A long history of disinfected mail

By Jesse Robitaille

In the time of COVID-19, disinfected mail is perhaps one of the most intriguing and relevant areas of postal history for collectors to explore.

It’s an aspect of postal history similar to disaster mail, which refers to mail disrupted by natural or human-made events such as fires, floods, shipwrecks and plane crashes. Arising from seemingly random instances, both disinfected and disaster mail are also understandably rare and date back as far as mail, plagues and disasters have existed.

“Long before the causes of epidemic scourges were individually identified, the dangers of dissemination of infection had been grasped,” wrote K. F. Meyer in the December 1952 issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, a peer-reviewed medical journal on psychopathology (the scientific study of mental disorders).

Meyer – known as the “Louis Pasteur of the 20th century” for his work in infectious diseases and public health – referenced a 1374 ordinance enacted by Bernabò Visconti, the Lord of Milan in present-day Italy. Enacted about two decades after the height of the second plague pandemic, which began with the “Black Death” – the deadliest pandemic in recorded history – it “must be considered the forerunner of the official decrees which, during the next 500 years, brought into being a … system of protective measures against contagion,” Meyer wrote.

In the plague’s aftermath, the Italian city of Venice began turning away anyone suspected of being infected. Venetian officials imposed a 40-day isolation – “quaranta giorni,” to which we owe the word quarantine – for anyone arriving from the Levant, which was linked to outbreaks of disease.

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