12 June 2024

A Glimpse of the Past: I Discover A Hand Written Letter from Over 114 Years Ago and Share its Contents

The letter in question

A few weeks ago I was helping clean out a room in the  Finnish Hall in Berkeley in preparation for construction that will make the historic building ADA compliant. (My maternal grandfather helped build the Hall which was completed in 1932.) It seems that Finns never throw anything away. There were programs, tickets, ledgers, meeting minutes and photos aplenty from 1920s through the 1990s before most everything started to be done online. I also found file after file of applications for membership including my father's, brother's uncle's and aunt's. One of my more unusual finds was the 124-year-old letter you see a picture of above and the transcript from below. It was in a box with a lot of unrelated items. It was the oldest item I came across. Though handwritten I was able to make out everything but the last name of the doctor who signed the letter. (Teaching for over 37 years prepares one to read all manner of handwriting.)

The letterhead says only: "Emergency Hospitals Dep't of Public" and on the right, "San Francisco" with the date Nov 23 1909.

Here's the letter:

To the Finnish Brotherhood. There was no written agreement between us, as I remember the verbal agreement it was to the effect that for a stipulated sum I was to give any professional services to the members of your Lodge. This included all accidents & sicknesses except the venereal diseases. All members that were able were presumed to come to the offices otherwise they were to be visited at their residences. Major surgical operations were presumed to carry additional pay — the amount to be given to the Doctor to be determined by the lodger. Accidents or injuries resulting from intoxication are not entitled to lodge treatment. Payment of salary to be at the end of each quarter.


JC Egrberg(?) MD

Obviously I haven't a clue if there was a particular incident that this letter refers to. It could well be that it was not in reference to anything in particular but was meant to verify the doctor's understanding of his agreement with the Brotherhood. According to the research I did for my speech, When Berkeley was Finntown, given at the Hall a a couple of years ago, Berkeley's brotherhood was established in 1911. However this letter is dated two years prior. Perhaps this letter was written to another brotherhood, like one in San Francisco. Alternatively, perhaps the sources I used in my research were wrong. 

The brotherhood was established in part to provide aid and succor -- as well as a center for social events -- for the many immigrants from Finland coming to the area in the early 1900s. Health services were included, though not without out-of-pocket expenses as we shall see. 

I found it -- what's the right word? -- thrilling, exciting, interesting, fun? to hold in my hands a letter that was written when William Howard Taft was president, a Tsar ruled Russia, manned flight was but five years old and World War I was still five years away. That's an old letter, my friends.

I found it interesting that the doctor specified that he would not treat venereal diseases or injuries stemming from "intoxication." (Was he given to believe that many Finns are prodigious drinkers?) His unwillingness to treat STDs betrays a prudishness that was likely much too common in the medical community back then. My understanding of the Hippocratic Oath is that you treat the ailing -- period, full stop -- without passing moral judgments.

It is also noteworthy that he made house calls. This fell out of fashion among general practitioners by the 1960s. It is also quaint that a verbal agreement was sufficient (talk about the old days)  between the brotherhood and the doctor and there was merely the presumption of "additional pay" for operations. No HMOs need be applied to. Of course another of this letter's charms is that it is hand-written by the doctor himself. Did he even have a secretary to type for him? Perhaps not. Typewriters weren't yet ubiquitous in offices.

The letter, even at a mere 120 words, is a glimpse into the past and interesting one at that, revealing as it does the stricter moral codes of the time, the innocence and simpleness. It was a time before corporations and lawyers dictated so much of peoples' lives. What a cool thing to find.

No comments: