Letters in the time of Cholera

We store 17 letters from the period 1831 – 1837 in our depot. Together, these letters form our cholera collection. They provide a window back in time to learn that pandemics and epidemics always existed.

‘La Peste’ (1947) by Albert Camus lies on the counter in between new publications in the bookstore. We can travel back in time to read that pandemics and epidemics often came and went. 

We store 17 letters from the 1831 – 1837 in our depot. Together, these letters form our cholera collection. The letters have a red ‘purified’ inscription or stamp to reassure the recipient and postman. 

Epidemic in the 19th century

In the 19th century cholera was rampant throughout Europe. This was before the discovery of bacteria and insight that they could cause infectious diseases. The importance of personal hygiene had yet to be discovered. The cholera epidemic led to mass deaths from diarrhoea and dehydration.

Although they didn’t understand much about how cholera was spreading across the continent, doctors responded quickly. They set up healthcare committees and advised on preventative measures. These included: being cautious, refraining from too much physical or mental effort, avoiding too much rest, moderate consumption of alcohol and food, warm clothing and ventilating your home. The last-mentioned advice was impossible for many poverty-stricken Europeans. 

Sending letters and packages was an essential way of communicating with others. It also ensured that economic activities continued.  Just like today these activities remain essential. Decontaminating letters seemed like a good idea. All mail was immersed in vinegar or hung over a perfumed fire. Does that seem excessive?

Our curator, Anja Tollenaar explains the process of purifying letters in the video below:

‘Mental Cholera’

In March 2020, 188 years later, the University Medical Center Groningen discouraged the sending of letters and cards for fear of contamination with the coronavirus.

Let us return to the contents of the letter …

It is a letter from Gerard Bekker to Adriaan Holtius, Leuven, dated 15 July 1832. The photo shows that the letter was purified, nevertheless it has remained readable. Bekker was not a happy individual. He didn’t just report about the “Cholera scourge” in Leuven, he was also extremely upset by the moral and spiritual decline in the world, and university education in particular. He referred to this as “mental cholera”.

The Letter

“Zeer waarde vriend. Ik heb uwe aangenamen brief van 22 febr al te lang zonder antwoord gelaten. Maar wat zou men in die tijden ook veel schrijven waar men zelf moeite heeft om te existeren; waar men naauwelijks kan weten, of hij al aankomt van onze brieven de geheele wereld niet in vuur en vlammen staat en misschien alle onze gissingen en verwachtingen reeds te niet zijn gegaan. Nog nooit in mijn brieven heb ik voor schriftelijke mededeeling aan mijne vrienden zoo veel tegenzin gevoeld als nu. Het schijnt dat de ongerustheid, de zorgen, de hoop er weer eens de wanhoop ten aanzien van ons aanstaande lot alle andere gevoelen absorbeert. Zo ernstig men ook streeft, zijn gemoed aan den invloed der omstandigheden van den tijd te onttrekken; de dagelijksche aanraking met de wereld werpt ons welhaast weder in de oude ziekte terug, ….  Ook is ’t in ’t algemeen niet wel mogelijk onverschillig en opgeruimd te blijven, wanneer men ziet hoe de geestige cholera zich uitbreidt en hoe de eerste beginselen van godsdienst, regt en zedekunde verwart, ontwend en zelfs met voeten getreden worden; ….”

…”Baud behoort thans nog meer dan vroeger aan de stad, aan commissions, comités etc, vooral zedert die heeren door de Cholerajagt zich een grootere importance weten te geven.”

Sender: Likely Gerard Joseph Bekker from Wallduren in Baden, Doctor in de Wijsbegeerte en vrije Kunsten, geboren 22 December 1792. Sent in Leuven.

Recipient: Prof. mr. dr. Adrianus Catharinus Holtius (1786-1861), hoogleraar Rechtsgeleerdheid te Utrecht. Destination: Utrecht.

Curious about other items in our collection that are currently relevant? Read about this ‘In the leading role’, about two Romanian toilet rolls during the Ceausescu era.