Bill of Health

American Maritime Documents 1776-1860

Stein, Douglas L. 1992

A printed document. These certificates were usually printed locally for use by the port’s customs officers, and thus vary a great deal in size and format. Frequently the words, “”Bill of Health”” do not appear, but the name of the customs district issuing the Bill is often prominently displayed. Some documents exhibit decorative engravings, while all provide spaces for the vessel’s name and master, cargo, destination, and number of per sons aboard. Signatures of the Collector and the Naval Officer are present.

By the end of the eighteenth century a Bill of Health was required as part of a ship’s papers, and certified the status of contagious disease at the port during the time of departure. A clean bill of health indicated that no plague or infectious disorders were known to exist. A suspected bill indicated rumors of disease, although it had not yet appeared, and a foul bill certified that the port of departure was infected at the time the ship sailed. A clean bill of health was by far the most common, and these are often found in maritime collections.

Bill of Health
Bill of Health signed by the Collector at the Port of Kennebunk, 2 March 1810. “No 1” indicates that it was the first one to be issued that year.

Bill of Health
Bill of Health from the Port of New York, containing the signatures of the Collector and Naval Officer, August 13, 1859.