In Fraubrunnen (Canton of Bern), foot-and-mouth disease raged in 1919/1920. The ‘diseased letter’ shown was therefore disinfected.
In Fraubrunnen (Canton of Bern), foot-and-mouth disease raged in 1919/1920. The ‘diseased letter’ shown was therefore disinfected. Museum of Communication

Disinfected letters

From cholera to coronavirus – epidemics have always had an impact on the postal service in Switzerland. A look back at the PTT archives shows how crisis situations were dealt with in the past.

Jonas Veress

Jonas Veress studied history and works as a research assistant in the PTT Archive

In spring 2020, while thousands of people hunkered down in their home offices due to the coronavirus, Switzerland’s postal workers continued to go from door to door every day. Even in exceptional circumstances, the mail must be delivered! To minimise contact with people and prevent the disease from spreading, protective measures were put in place at Swiss Post. Parcel carriers set off on their rounds on a staggered timetable. And those who received registered mail may have noticed that for hygiene reasons, the usual signature was no longer required. But it was mainly behind the scenes that the crisis caused problems for the postal service. Social distancing rules in processing centres that were handling unprecedented mountains of parcels sometimes led to delays in delivery. In general, however, communication and transport by mail in Switzerland functioned without major constraints – by no means a given, as a look back at the past shows.

Powerless against the flu

When the Spanish flu spread across Europe in summer 1918, there were fears that the disease could also be spread by items delivered through the postal service. The district post offices therefore put in place an array of preventive measures. Even then, people kept their distance wherever possible. It was forbidden for mail carriers to enter the homes of sick people. The recommendations for frequent handwashing and instructions to regularly disinfect offices, service areas and railway mail cars also ring true in the coronavirus era. A specific ban on spitting on the floor, on the other hand, would no longer be relevant today – nor would the general recommendation from the national postal bureau to ‘keep your cool’, as the body is more prone to infections in an agitated state. In fact, despite all these measures, there was no real treatment for the flu. The disease, which cost an estimated 25,000 lives nationwide, also hit the postal services particularly hard. Heavily exposed due to their work, postal workers dropped like flies: about half of the entire workforce is thought to have contracted the flu by summer 1919. Despite the recruitment of numerous temporary staff – even children were dragged in as interim postal workers in some places – it wasn’t possible to keep operations going everywhere. Some post offices had to close temporarily at the height of the pandemic. The city of Solothurn was one of the places affected. On 19 October 1918, the district post office was notified that at least three clerks needed to keep operations running at the Solothurn Industriequartier post office would be absent. A frantic search for replacements was unsuccessful, and the post office was closed two days later. And even at Solothurn’s main post office, the opening hours had to be reduced.
In July 1918, the national postal bureau (Oberpostdirektion) instructed its district offices to collect statistics on flu cases.
In July 1918, the national postal bureau (Oberpostdirektion) instructed its district offices to collect statistics on flu cases. The picture shows one of the tables compiled by the district post office in Chur. PTT Archive
The Spanish flu also took its toll on telecommunications.
The Spanish flu also took its toll on telecommunications. In the district telegraph office in Lucerne, staff resources were becoming scarce, as the telegram shown here proves. PTT Archive
Not just in Solothurn, but throughout Switzerland, the horrors of the Spanish flu remained present for a long time. At the PTT, the dramatic experience had an impact on operational procedures: to ensure the organisation would be better prepared for future flu outbreaks, the state-owned enterprise, which in the 1920s consisted of post and telecommunications, henceforth gave its employees regular updates on how to behave in the event of influenza. It wasn’t until 1943 that the flu paragraph was finally deleted from the organisation’s ‘official notices’ (Dienstlichen Mitteilungen).

Epidemics and creatures great and small

Foot-and-mouth disease, from which Switzerland suffered intermittent outbreaks into the late 20th century, was far less serious, at least for human health. But here too, measures to contain the disease had a significant impact on the postal service. For example, in 1920, a particularly devastating epidemic swept across Switzerland. Affected regions were sealed off as no-go areas, known as ‘Bannzone’, and entire communities were hit. Outgoing mail was disinfected and labelled appropriately. In Bern, the Canton veterinary office issued the directive for out-of-bounds areas that worthless correspondence be burned immediately upon receipt. In some places, such as Suberg in Bern, the foot-and-mouth outbreak was responsible for situations that would be unimaginable in this day and age. Since one of the farmers affected was also the community’s postman, the little village post office, along with postman Baumann and his farm, were put on lockdown for three weeks. A temporary post office was installed in the village schoolhouse, and without further ceremony the local police constable was put in charge of postal services. Several months later, improvisation was also called for in the municipality of Finsterhennen in Seeland. The village didn’t have its own post office, but the neighbouring village of Siselen, where the relevant post office was located, had been declared a no-go area, so a temporary mail depot had to be created. Once again, the depot was set up in the schoolhouse, but in this case the postal business was entrusted to the village schoolteacher. Like the local cop in Suberg, he was considered trustworthy enough when it came to safeguarding the sanctity of the mail. No-go zones and village police officers as temporary postmen – even though the postal service is yet again facing the challenges of a pandemic, luckily we haven’t yet had to resort to the drastic measures of 100 years ago.
Post offices in farmhouses, like this one in Suberg, were not uncommon in the early 20th century.
Post offices in farmhouses, like this one in Suberg, were not uncommon in the early 20th century. If there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on one of these farms, the mail service was shut down as well. PTT Archive
Foot-and-mouth disease continued intermittently to cause restrictions in postal services. The photo shows a postman making deliveries in Root (Canton of Lucerne) in 1966.
Foot-and-mouth disease continued intermittently to cause restrictions in postal services. The photo shows a postman making deliveries in Root (Canton of Lucerne) in 1966. Museum of Communication

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