Message-relay systems of the ancient world

Since good communications were clearly essential for governing the extensive empires of the ancient world, it is not surprising that among the earliest historical references to postal systems were those concerning Egypt about 2000 bc and China under the Chou dynasty 1,000 years later. It was probably in China that a posthouse relay system was first developed and was brought to a high state of development under the Mongol emperors. The great Persian Empire of Cyrus in the 6th century bc also employed relays of mounted messengers, served by posthouses. The system was favourably described by the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon. The admiration of the Greeks was natural since their political divisions inhibited the growth of a coherent postal system, although each city-state possessed its corps of messengers.

The development of Rome from a small city-state into a vast empire embracing most of the known world brought with it the necessity for reliable and speedy communications with the governors of distant provinces. This need was met by the cursus publicus, the most highly developed postal system of the ancient world. The relay stages of the cursus publicus, established at convenient intervals along the great roads of the empire, formed an integral part of its complex military and administrative system. The speed with which messengers were able to travel during the peak of the administration was not to be rivaled in Europe until the 19th century: it has been claimed that more than 170 miles (270 kilometres) could be covered in a day and a night. The maintenance of the cursus publicus required a high degree of organization; an inspectorial system existed to control its operation and prevent abuse for private ends.

The fall of the Roman Empire in the west during the 5th century did not completely destroy the cursus publicus. Its advantages were evident to the new barbarian rulers; some, such as Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, who ruled Italy from ad 493 to 526, are known to have maintained the essentials of the Roman postal system within their own domains. Even in the early 9th century, under the Carolingian Empire, the vestiges of the cursus publicus appear to have persisted, and posthouses were maintained. While the service did not follow a regularly organized pattern, it was at least reasonably frequent. The continued decay of the Roman roads, the increasing unwillingness of communities bordering the roads to support the expenses of the system, and the progressive political fragmentation of Europe, however, caused all traces of the Roman postal system to disappear.

The cursus publicus fared better in the Byzantine Empire because its provinces were eventually absorbed into the Islāmic Empire. The substitution of one centralized imperial regime for another meant that the cursus publicus could be incorporated into a similar Arabian postal system based in Baghdad.

The pre-Columbian civilizations of America, responding to the same needs as the imperial states of Asia and Europe, also evolved relay systems, limited to foot messengers. In the Inca Empire, posthouses were maintained at frequent intervals along the remarkable road network, and a like system probably served the Mayan civilization for more than 1,000 years.

Growth of business correspondence in the Middle Ages

The end of the reign of the last Carolingian king in 987 marked the beginning of several centuries of confusion in Europe, in which it is difficult to trace any postal system worthy of the title. Since the kings of the period were constantly struggling to assert their authority over their unruly feudal vassals, the strong central authority that sustained most postal systems was lacking. The uncertain political situation did not favour the creation of a regulated postal service, though it necessitated frequent contact between the kings and vassals and among the great princes. They, along with other powerful institutions—the municipalities, the religious orders, and the universities (notably in Paris)—started to maintain corps of messengers to serve their particular needs.

One of the more significant trends of the later Middle Ages was the development of international commerce and, with it, the growth of business correspondence. Many corporations or guilds established messenger systems to allow their members to maintain contacts with customers. Notable among these was the so-called Butcher Post (Metzger Post), which was able to combine the carrying of letters with the constant traveling that the trade required.

The mercantile corporations of Italy provided the most extensive and regular postal system of this period. Of particular importance were the links maintained from the mid-13th century between the great Italian commercial centres, such as Florence, Genoa, and Siena, and six important annual fairs held in the Champagne area of northern France. Two fixed dispatches were made to each of these fairs: the first to carry orders and commissions and the second to effect settlements. The service was carefully regulated. Conditions of acceptance, scales of payment, and timetables were laid down; the route was fixed, and hostels were maintained along the route. Since the Champagne fairs were attended by merchants from all over Europe, the postal system provided a valuable international link.

Italian business interests were also responsible for the only regular extra-European postal link of this period, between Venice and Constantinople. The extent and importance of Venetian business correspondence may be gauged from the fact that in 1320 the king of Persia accorded its couriers the right of free passage throughout his domains.

Russia shared in the general European trend toward the development of postal services in the 13th century. Horses and drivers for the transport of couriers were kept at regular staging posts to provide the so-called carriage express, which gradually developed into an organized system for the exchange of letters.

Growth of the post as a government monopoly

Institutional postal systems that developed during the later Middle Ages also conveyed letters between private persons, with or without official sanction and for a substantial fee in either case. Initially, such letters were relatively few. Outside the institutions with their own postal services, the number of literate people having interests that ranged beyond their own neighbourhoods was small.

In the late 15th century, however, the trend toward improved postal services was reinforced by Gutenberg’s printing press (c. 1450) and the expansion of education. The growth of demand made letter carrying a profitable business, leading to the rise of private undertakings—the majority, like the Swiss Stumpelbotten, purely local in scope. Some, like the Paar family in Austria, developed postal organizations on a national scale. By far the most famous and extensive of such systems was that built up by the Thurn and Taxis family, who originally came from Bergamo near Milan, Italy. Under the patronage of the Habsburg emperors, they became the organizers of an extensive network of postal routes linking the imperial possessions. Their system developed throughout the 16th century until it covered most of Europe, using 20,000 couriers to operate a relay system that was speedy, efficient, and highly profitable.

Although the remnants of the Thurn and Taxis postal system survived in Germany up to 1867, it was essentially out of keeping—like the empire and the petty German states it served—with the main trend of development in Europe, the rise of nation-states with strong central governments. The first reflection of this trend in the postal sphere was the establishment of efficient national systems of relay posts under the control of the state. In France, Louis XI set up a Royal Postal Service in 1477 employing 230 mounted couriers. In England, a Master of the Posts was appointed by Henry VIII in 1516 to maintain a regular postal service along the main roads radiating from London. Neither of these systems was comprehensive, nor were they intended to serve the public. The security and regularity of the service along certain routes, however, inevitably resulted in an increasing amount of unofficial correspondence being carried. After initial attempts to prevent this practice in France, its fiscal advantages were realized, and the carrying of private mails was legalized about 1600. The basis of a real public service was not created until 1627, when fees and timetables were fixed and post offices established in the larger cities. In Britain, a separate public service was set up in 1635 by a royal proclamation “for the settling of the letter-office of England and Scotland.” Thomas Witherings, a London merchant, was given the task of organizing regular services to run by day and night along the great post roads.

In both countries, these state systems naturally began to develop into monopolies since such an evolution was seen by rulers as advantageous both to the security and to the revenues of the state. In England, the establishment of state posts along the principal roads was accompanied by the suppression, under the royal monopoly, of private and municipal posts, although “common carriers” were still permitted to convey letters on routes not covered by the royal system.

In 1672 France declared postal services to be a state monopoly under which operating rights were sold. Private undertakings that had established legal rights in this field were allowed to continue, but private messenger systems were eventually forced out of business by state competition or were bought out. In 1719 the University of Paris, the most important private competitor, gave up its last postal privileges in return for substantial compensation.

There was still opportunity for private enterprise to succeed by introducing services that were not at that time provided by the state systems. It was in this way that an important step in postal history, the establishment of local collection and delivery services in the great cities of London and Paris, was taken. London was the first city to benefit from an urban service when one William Dockwra set up his Penny Post in 1680. Striking features of the scheme were that letters were prepaid and stamped to indicate place of posting and the time they had been sent out for delivery. Deliveries were made almost hourly. Dockwra’s scheme was so successful that he was prosecuted for infringing the state monopoly, and his service was closed down in November 1682, only to be reopened by the government. Not until 1759 was a similar local service introduced in Paris. It too was quickly absorbed by the state postal system; but its originator, Claude-Humbert Piarron de Chamousset, was paid compensation. Thus, the state monopolies expanded their scope, happily combining an improved service to the public with greater profitability.

The pace of postal progress in England during the later 18th century was accelerated by remarkable economic growth and a consequent demand for better mail services to the growing commercial and manufacturing centres. The most striking improvements came as the result of an extensive program of road building that began about 1765, paving the way for the era of the stagecoach. These were first used by the post office in 1784 and rapidly superseded the mounted postboys on the main routes. They began by averaging six or seven miles an hour, but continuing improvements in the roads and in the design of the vehicles pushed this up to 10 miles an hour in the 1830s. With the stagecoaches making possible a general reorganization of the entire system of mail circulation, letters could be delivered the morning after posting in towns more than 120 miles from London. A carefully regulated postal service—unprecedented for its standards of speed, frequency, and security—was evolved during this period.

Despite the disruptive effects of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, great progress was made throughout Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in improving the speed and regularity of postal service and in providing internal delivery services for most of the larger cities. In the United States, too, postal services expanded at a remarkable rate: in 1789 only 75 post offices existed, but 40 years later there were more than 8,000.

Rowland Hill’s reforms

The publication in 1837 of Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, by Rowland Hill (later Sir Rowland Hill), a British educator and tax reformer, is justly regarded as one of the most important milestones in postal progress. Based on an exhaustive study of the cost structure of postal operations, it demonstrated conclusively that conveyance charges were an insignificant factor in the total cost of handling a letter. The then current intricate charging scales based on distance were shown to be irrelevant: they inflated operating costs by requiring a host of clerks to apply them and to prepare complicated interoffice accounts. He also realized that another major item in the current cost structure—the collection of money payments on delivery—was easily avoidable. Hill’s solution was a uniform rate of postage, regardless of distance, and prepayment of postage by means of adhesive stamps sold by the post office. Hill proposed a basic rate of one penny for each half ounce, calculating the “natural cost of distribution” to be slightly less than this. The cheapest current rate of postage was fourpence, and the average charge 6 1/4 pence (11.56 cents).

Not surprisingly, Hill’s proposals rapidly gained strong support: popular agitation for the “penny post” overcame initial political disinterest, and the uniform rate and a system of prepayment by stamps were introduced in 1840. The originality of Hill’s proposal for an adhesive postage stamp has been questioned but is irrelevant in considering the overall merits of his work. The significance of his reforms lies not only in the fact that they brought the post within the means of the mass of the people but also in the less obvious way in which they gave the postal system the technical capacity to deal with the vastly increased demand for postal service that ensued. The radical simplification of postal organization and methods characterizing Hill’s reforms are the key to the speed and economy with which modern postal systems in many countries handle tens of millions of letters daily.

The chief features of Hill’s system were gradually adopted in varying degrees by other countries throughout the world, first among which were Switzerland and Brazil in 1843.

The introduction of uniform cheap rates of postage for letters was accompanied by the establishment of even lower tariffs for newspapers (carried free in some countries) and for printed matter (e.g., the British “Book Post” of 1848). These reduced rates were perhaps originally intended to favour the spread of education but quickly expanded, under the vigorous pressure of vested interests, to cover all sorts of commercial documents, advertising matter, magazines, etc. An inexpensive form of correspondence, the postcard, first introduced by Austria in 1869, was soon adopted by most other countries.

The general postal reforms of the mid-19th century ensured maximum benefit from the technological progress in transport in the great age of the railway and the steamship. These new modes of conveyance permitted a far speedier, more regular, and more reliable mail service, both internally and internationally. Railways in particular had a marked effect on the organization of postal work: instead of merely using trains to carry mailbags more speedily, postal administrations soon introduced the practice of sorting the letters in transit, using specially adapted railway cars. This greatly multiplied the advantages of railway conveyance. The first traveling, or railway, post offices ran in 1838 between Birmingham and Liverpool and London and Preston. By the end of the century, Britain, many continental European countries, the United States, and India had built up a complex network of such services, allowing the delivery of letters the day after mailing at distances three or four times as great as had been possible with the stagecoach, exceeding 400 miles in some cases.

International postal reform: the Universal Postal Union

The advent of the steamship and the railway had provided the opportunity for speedier international postal services, and the expansion of commerce ensured a growing demand for such facilities. Unfortunately, serious obstacles to the free exchange of international mails existed. Postal relations between states were the subject of bilateral postal treaties that had multiplied alarmingly during the 19th century. Most large European states were party to at least a dozen treaties by the 1860s. Such treaties necessitated the maintenance of detailed accounts between the countries concerned. Owing to the bewildering variety of currencies and units of weight and measurement then in use, the accounts attained a complexity described by a contemporary postmaster general of the United States as “almost beyond belief.” Understandably, the users of the post suffered from this chaotic situation and from the high international postage rates that were its natural result.

The first practical step toward reform did not come until May 1863, when the delegates of 15 European and American postal administrations met at the Paris Postal Conference, convening at the suggestion of the U.S. postmaster general. The conference established important general principles for the simplification of procedures, which were adopted as a model for subsequent bilateral treaties by the countries concerned.

The final step required the embodiment of these principles in a formal international treaty and the creation of an organization to administer them. An example was set by another conference at Paris two years later, which established the International Telegraph Union. Similar developments in the postal field were delayed by the advent of the American Civil War and the Franco-German War.

In 1868, however, a plan for a general postal union was put forward by the director of posts of the North German Confederation. Eventually, an international postal congress met, on September 15, 1874, in Bern. It was attended by representatives of 22 states, all European except for Egypt and the United States. On October 9 a “Treaty concerning the Establishment of a General Postal Union” was signed. It was implemented on July 1, 1875, when the General Postal Union came into being. This title was changed in 1878 to the Universal Postal Union (UPU), and the basic treaty was renamed the Universal Postal Convention. The treaty provides a uniform framework of rules and procedures for the exchange of international mails. The union grew rapidly, increasing its membership to 55 within 10 years. By 1914, when China was admitted, it included almost all independent countries. The scope of the union’s activities also expanded. In addition to its primary role, it gradually extended its functions to cover other international services provided by postal administrations, such as money orders (1878), parcel post (1885), postal checks (1920), cash on delivery (1947), and savings banks (1957). The UPU has been a specialized agency of the United Nations since 1948.

Development of airmail

Balloon posts, apart from those organized during the sieges of Paris (1870) and Przemyśl (1915), for the most part only carried souvenir mail, owing to the balloons’ uncontrollability. Airships overcame this problem but, again, did not establish themselves as a regular means of mail transport. It was only through the development of the airplane in the early decades of the 20th century that airmail truly came into its own. Certain experiments had been undertaken before World War I, such as airmail service between Hendon, on the northwestern outskirts of London, and Windsor in 1911 to mark the coronation of George V and flights between Paris and Bordeaux in 1913. Regular flights did not begin in the United States until 1918, and it was not until 1919, when the reliability of airplanes had considerably improved, that the first regular international service was introduced—between London and Paris. Other European links soon followed. On the long-distance continental and intercontinental routes airmail demonstrated its clear superiority over all surface transport. Technical factors delayed progress in opening up longer routes. The first American transcontinental airmail flight took place in 1920, but regular service did not begin until 1924. In 1926 a service between Egypt and Karāchi began and was linked to London in 1929. It was extended to Singapore by 1933 and to Australia in 1934. It was not until 1939 that a regular air service across the North Atlantic was launched with the takeoff of the Yankee Clipper, an American seaplane, on May 20.

While the growing availability of air flight did not affect basic postal organization as profoundly as the railways, its advantages of speed and operational reliability have been exploited in different ways since the 1920s. Prior to World War II, a number of European countries adopted the practice of forwarding letters to distant destinations at no extra cost to the sender (such as British mails sent to most parts of the British Empire). The consistently high costs of airmail curtailed this trend after the war. During the mid-1960s the UPU, in response to the continuing increase of aircraft capacity, adopted the policy of maximizing air conveyance of mail. In the mid-1970s, the concept of “surface air-lifted” (SAL) mails was developed in conjunction with the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This arrangement allows some mails to receive, for little or no surcharge, speedier transmission than by surface, but without the priority of fully surcharged mails. Use of SAL varies from country to country.

For individual correspondence, the most practical and inexpensive form of airmail remains the compact aerogram, which was introduced in Britain during World War II as a convenient way of writing to overseas military personnel. It consists of a sheet of lightweight paper suitably folded and gummed on all sides. Recognized by the UPU, the aerogram is available in most countries.

Advanced communications technology

Rapidly advancing computer and data transmission technologies of the late 20th century are being felt far more widely within the postal sector than were previous advances, such as improved roads, the railway, and the airplane. Although the latter enabled postal services to reform or enhance existing services, today’s technologies go further by providing alternatives to the letter in the form of electronic messaging networks and electronic data-processing techniques to improve administrative efficiency.