WASHINGTON—When women in long dresses and men in black ties ambled to the post office in days of old, they sometimes found their letters with holes in them or their envelopes browned from smoke or covered in the peculiar smell of some nasty chemical.
Far from angry, the patrons were relieved. To them, it meant the mail had been sanitized from disease.
anthrax is the most serious challenge ever to the U.S. Postal Service, but history is replete with all kinds of attacks on the mail. And efforts to rid the system of biological threats go back decades, even centuries.
Smallpox sent through the mail? Leprosy enclosed in an envelope? The plague in the post office?
Today, scientists know the chances of transmitting those diseases through the mail were slim to non-existent. But earlier generations, ravaged by illnesses, were deeply concerned about such possibilities, and extraordinary measures were taken to keep the mail safe.
Anthrax `a real threat'
"In a sense, I guess you could say history is repeating itself," said William Sandrik, a retired postal historian who has studied "disinfected" mail. "The difference with the anthrax is, it's obviously a real threat, and the medical professionals seem to know more than they did back when."
Another difference is that until recently nobody suspected anyone would try to transmit disease through the mail.
Doctors through the ages have been aware of outbreaks of various diseases in different parts of the United States and throughout the world, and they were eager to isolate whatever might be causing the illnesses and prevent them from spreading.
So if there were an outbreak of yellow fever in the West Indies, mail arriving from that country would be "disinfected." Cholera in Paris? Mail from France would get the treatment too.
When there were perceived threats in mail from within the United States--from people suffering from leprosy, for example--it was disinfected as well.
Whether the treatments were necessary or not, they probably were beneficial in a broader sense, said Monica Schoch-Spana, a cultural anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.
"Every age has both the technical information it draws on to make decisions and symbolic efforts it takes," she said. "There's often a collective symbolic need to demonstrate rituals of security, so there is undoubtedly benefit in that way."
"Disinfected mail" has been defined in various ways. In 16th Century Europe, it merely meant hanging it in the air for 40 days or so. Later, Europeans would slit or puncture letters authorities feared were infected with disease and then "smoke" them, usually by burning sulfur or formaldehyde.
That method was adopted by the United States, where there are documented cases of mail being disinfected in the 1800s for bubonic plague, yellow fever and cholera, among other diseases. To puncture mail, postal workers often used a tool that resembles a hair brush, but with fewer--and sharper--tines.
Sometimes the efforts at disinfecting were undertaken aboard boats designed for the task or in train cars. Or the mail was quarantined in special buildings, usually built on islands.
Until 1968, mail leaving three U.S. leper colonies was routinely disinfected, usually with a few punctures through the envelope and formaldehyde.
"It got to the point where the postal service allowed senders of letters to punch their own holes in the envelopes so their letters or money or whatever wouldn't get ruined," said Sandrik, who has a collection of about 250 disinfected letters. "You wonder why they didn't think of that earlier."
Postal officials addressing the current anthrax problem are hopeful that science will help them rid the mail of the disease.
They are experimenting with an electron beam irradiation system, which is used on fruits and vegetables. Mail will ride a conveyor belt as it is bombarded with electrons intended to kill the anthrax bacteria.
Working toward solutions
"We are taking it to the next level," said John Potter, the postmaster general. "We recognize that there's a vulnerability in our system, and we're going to put permanent solutions in place."
The Postal Service has a proud history, much of it displayed in the U.S. Postal Museum next to Union Station in Washington. Its "rain nor sleet" slogan, pledging to get the mail through no matter what, is taken seriously. The first superintendent of airmail service, Benjamin Lipsner, once implored his pilots to fly through darkness and snowstorms.
"I don't expect you to do the impossible," he told them, "but I do expect you to go up if there's the slightest chance of getting through." He lost 43 employees in crashes in seven years.
These days--until the current anthrax attacks--the job of postal inspectors has largely been to foil fraud and drug rings and to help catch child pornographers. Bombs, rarely, are still sent through the mail, and robbers still go after carriers and occasionally hijack mail trucks.
But never in the history of the post office has there been anything like the current attack, where disease was purposely sent through the mail.
"The Unabomber doesn't come into it, not even close," said Jeffrey Brodie, an exhibit specialist and historian at the postal museum. "You can't find anything that challenges--that is an attack--on the universality of the system as a whole in the way this has."