This unusual wooden paddle with a nail-studded leather face 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, 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 actually 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.
Text and an illustration were added to the back of the paddle sometime after the Montgomery outbreak, when the fever’s true cause was known. The drawing of a large mosquito is accompanied by a verse that identifies the drawing as depicting “Bacillus Horriblius / Multa Dentura / (Yellow Fever Germ) / Reduced 500 Diam."