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Ships’ bills of health


Held at: University of Delaware Library Special Collections [Contact Us]181 South College Avenue, Newark, DE 19717-5267

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Delaware Library Special Collections. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

A bill of health is a document issued by the officials of a ship’s port of departure describing the health of the port and the sanitary condition of the ship to officials at the ship’s port of arrival. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these documents were usually printed locally for use by the port’s customs officers or consuls. These documents varied in size and appearance, but all provided information on the vessel’s name and master, nationality, cargo, destination, and the number of passengers and crew aboard. By the end of the eighteenth century, a bill of health was required as part of a ship’s papers, necessary for clearance from and entrance into ports. The bill of health certified the status of contagious or infectious disease at the port at the time of the ship’s departure. A clean bill of health certified that no plagues or infectious disorders were present, while a foul bill of health indicated that the port of departure was infected at the time the ship sailed. Many of the documents in this collection provide space to record recent cases and deaths due to specific diseases, including yellow fever, plague, Asiatic cholera, and smallpox.

Stein, Douglas L. American Maritime Documents, 1776-1860, Illustrated and Described. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1992.Information derived from the collection.

This collection consists of bills of health from ships traveling from ports in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean between 1894 and 1932.

The bills of health in this collection belonged to American and foreign ships traveling from various ports in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were issued by the United States Consular Service or Public Health Service and certified the health of the port of departure and the sanitary conditions of the ship. Philadelphia was the port of arrival for many of these ships, although some were destined for other ports in the United States. Several bills of health do not specify a destination.

The bills of health provide information on the ship’s name, rigging, nationality, master, tonnage, cargo, crew, and passengers. Most describe the ship’s destination and some list its most recent ports of call. All of these documents describe the sanitary conditions of the ship, the health of the crew, and any epidemic diseases present in the port of departure and surrounding areas. Most of the ships in this collection received a clean bill of health. However, a 1929 bill of health from Havana, Cuba, noted that leprosy was present in the port and a 1931 bill of health from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded several recent deaths from catarrh. Documents from a ship traveling from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Philadelphia certified that a cargo of cattle hair was free from anthrax, foot and mouth disease, and rinderpest.

Most bills of health were issued by American consuls in foreign ports. However, they were not present in all locations. Officials in Japan, Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden, and Indonesia issued certificates due to the absence of American consuls. This collection also includes several bills of health issued by officials in the Panama Canal Zone and certificates of discharge from national quarantine in Philadelphia.

Gift of Barry and Sue Moyerman, December 1972

Processed and encoded by Elizabeth Jones-Minsinger, October 2017.

University of Delaware Library Special Collections
Finding Aid Author
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
Finding Aid Date
2017 October 27
Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce isrequired from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library,

Collection Inventory

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