From David Vincent In Shrewsbury, UK: Smoking the Mail

Daniel Defoe

September 10.  Over the last six months, the main exposure of our home to the threatening outside world has been in the form not of visitors but deliveries of post, weekly groceries and the fruits of online shopping.   The postman and other van drivers keep their distance.  The problem is what to do with the letters and boxed items.  We know that the coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces for at least twenty-four hours.  This causes us to leave untouched boring items such as advertising circulars and bank statements. But we are less patient with anything that looks as if it will entertain us or improve our lives.

For guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in this regard, we can turn once more to Daniel Defoe.  Alongside his Journal of the Plague Year he also published the much less well-known Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body.  Being some seasonable Thoughts upon the visible approach of the present dreadful Contagion in France; the properest measures to prevent it, and the great work of submitting to it (1722).  This was a more overtly didactic work than the Journal, although it deployed much of the same material. 

Among the topics he addressed was how to treat incoming mail.  James Daybell and other historians have demonstrated that there was a widely-used postal service operating across Britain by the mid-seventeenth-century.  It was deployed for business purposes, for connecting family members of the middling and upper classes, and for supporting an international network of scholars.  At the Restoration in 1660, Charles II established the General Letter Office, which was designed to create a state monopoly in the conveyance of letters.  Operating with a very broad understanding of infection, Defoe regarded the service as a serious threat to health. 

We now know that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas carried by black rats, and unlike fabrics sent about the country, the hard surface of paper was not likely to be a means of transmission.  But it is now, so we should take seriously the Due Preparations.   In the book Defoe cited the example (also referred to in the Journal) of a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, head of a household which comprised his wife, five children, two maid servants and an apprentice.  The grocer took the precaution of keeping his doors shut in order to avoid physical contact, hauling any necessary items to an upstairs window by means of a pulley:

“Hitherto he had corresponded with several of his acquaintances and customers in the country, and had received letters from them, and written letters to them constantly, but would not do any business, or send any goods to them upon any account, though very much pressed to it, because he resolved not to open his doors, whatever damages he suffered.

“His letters were brought by the postman, or letter- carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar ; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire ; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.” (New York, 1903 edn., p. 63)

I can only commend this practice to you.

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