The use of couriers to bear written messages is presumably as old as the art of writing itself. The entrusting of messages to those traveling on other business (trade, pilgrimage, etc.) is attested from ancient times. States in many parts of the world and in many periods have instituted some sort of cadre of official messengers, sometimes maintaining an infrastructure of roads, inns, and relays to provide for the needs of those traveling on official business. Ancient Persia, Egypt, China, and the Roman Empire all had sophisticated communications infrastructures of this nature. The oldest descriptions of such a postal service in operation come from ancient Greek commentators on Persian affairs.
The official transport system of the Roman Empire, the cursus publicus, was a relatively late development but in many ways typical of these ancient postal systems. It relied on a network of well-maintained roads and bridges, and a system of inns and relay stables, to facilitate the movement of imperial messengers and officials. The use of the posts as an instrument of state intelligence meant that there was little distinction between couriers, scouts, spies, and the secret police. The supplies, beasts of burden, and ancillary staff that relay stations required were exacted from local communities, which in return enjoyed exemptions from certain other taxes. Private messages and travelers were strictly banned from the public posts, and separate commercial services developed to serve such needs.
Development In The Middle Ages And Early Modern Times
In medieval Europe the physical and legal infrastructure of the cursus publicus was lost, but royal messengers as holders of a privileged official function were known. They were able to commandeer animals or other resources in the fulfillment of their duties, and assaults, insults, or robberies committed against them were more severely punished than those committed on ordinary travelers. Besides the royal messengers of Spain, France, and England, the official messengers of the papal chancellery and of the governments of Milan and Venice are also well attested. By the end of the Middle Ages, if not before, a more obscure “carrier” trade, open to members of the general public, was conducted by riders, drivers of packhorses, and carters who had little or no connection with the official postal services. Influential institutions or groups, such as civic corporations, universities, and religious orders, might retain servants to carry messages, often with privileges analogous to those of the official posts.
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw attempts to recreate something like the cursus publicus in many European states. The first international posts, linking the local Habsburg capitals of Innsbruck (in Austria) and Mechelen (in the Low Countries), were instituted in the late fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century, interlocking services connected all the cities of western and central Europe to what was effectively a single communications network. Until around 1800, the trunk of this system was a service from Milan and Venice to Brussels, via Augsburg, Frankfurt, and Cologne, under the administration of hereditary imperial postmasters of the Tassis, or Taxis, family. With an increasing proliferation of civic, national, and international postal services connecting to this trunk, a great deal of redundancy was built into the system, so that failures of connections in one part could be compensated for in others.
The same period saw the growth and reform of postal infrastructure and organization in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Persia, India, China, and Japan. In China, two parallel systems were maintained, one (dating from the seventh-century Tang dynasty) of regular couriers and courier stations and another (established by the Mongol rulers of the thirteenth-century Yuan dynasty) of express postal riders. Early seventeenth-century attempts to economize by closing down courier stations contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644. In early modern India and Japan, great roads were put in a state of repair and provided with inns and relay stations; some, such as the Sarak-i-Azam (the Grand Trunk Road) and the Tokaido, were of tremendous economic, administrative, and cultural importance. In all these places a variety of private commercial carrier services operated, benefiting from the maintenance of roads and bridges, and the building of caravanserais and posting inns, but still quite distinct from the official postal service.
The posts in seventeenth-century Europe, however, became “public” in a very different sense: the official posts were transformed from a part of the tax burden into a largely selffinancing service competing with private and civic carriers for custom. The legal understanding of posts continued to derive from Roman law, so that control of postal services, and the location of posthouses, were seen as issues of sovereignty. International posts, even when purely commercial ventures, were regulated by treaties between states. Practical considerations, such as monitoring seditious or suspicious correspondence, or making the posts a financially attractive proposition for royal monopolists, gave national governments additional reasons to control the carriage of letters as tightly as possible. Sometimes in law, and often in fact, conveyance of letters became a state monopoly. This could lead to conflicts between the newer “public” posts and the existing practices of the older carriers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cities and universities fought a long but ultimately losing battle for their carrying privileges.
The first treaties between European states to regulate international posts date from the seventeenth century: sometimes to guarantee the continuation of a regular postal service between belligerents, sometimes to agree new routes. Tampering with postbags, or interfering with postal messengers, could lead to crises in formal relations, and calculated retaliations. The profusion of bilateral treaties led eventually to a need for multilateral regulation at an international level, and relations between postal authorities are now regulated by the Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874 by the Treaty of Berne, and since 1948 an agency of the United Nations.
Until the late eighteenth century, postmen were still essentially post-riders, supplemented by short-distance packet boats within European waters, as later in the Caribbean and the coastal US. In the later eighteenth century, changing transport technology led to the appearance of stagecoaches, with attendant coaching inns and turnpike roads, and longdistance packet boats (and later still clippers), linking Europe and overseas colonies. The great merchant companies that dominated colonial trade and administration made tremendous efforts, not always profitably or successfully, to provide regular links to overseas colonies.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, postal services were the biggest institutional customers for steam packets, for railways, and later for civil aviation. Postal contracts were important elements in financing new rail, shipping, and air services. Experiments with airmail began as early as 1911, and the first international airmail services were launched in 1919.
The nineteenth century saw a general overhaul of the working practices of the posts, first in the British Post Office and soon copied or adapted throughout the world. Rowland Hill’s introduction of the adhesive penny stamp in 1840 provided a cheap and simple means of prepayment for conveyance of letters. The collection of prepaid mail from roadside postboxes, with near-universal delivery to the door, made the benefits of postal communication much more broadly available, but at the expense of the posts’ earlier profitability. In subsequent decades Frank Scudamore spearheaded the introduction of parcel post, postal savings, and a post-office monopoly on the telegraph (later extended to the telephone). Like regular postal delivery itself, fixed-line telecoms were widely seen as a natural monopoly that could more usefully be run as a state agency than as a private business. In some countries the post office did not directly manage telecoms, but typically a Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications combined oversight of the posts with a regulation of telecoms that often came to include some degree of formal or informal censorship of radio and television. In twentieth-century welfare states, post offices were often the preferred point of payment for pensions and other disbursements to individual citizens. By the end of the twentieth century, the Japanese post office was the single largest financial operator in the world.
The US Postal Service eschewed or abandoned all these developments to an extent unusual among national post offices; although at its height, during the banking collapses of the 1930s, US postal savings were by far the largest guarantor of private savings. Since the late twentieth century, many postal regimes have retreated from the model of a nationalized monopoly combining wide fields of operation in different aspects of communication, administration, and finance, and have opened almost every aspect of post-office activity to privatization and competition.
Social Impact Of The Postal Service
In seventeenth-century Europe, the institution of regular national and international posts open to the general public facilitated a massive expansion in correspondence. The working practices not only of diplomats and administrators, but also of merchants, scholars, the legal profession, scientists, and publishers, were all transformed by the advent of a regular service for the transmission of letters, newspapers, and small packages. This was a necessary precondition for the beginnings of print journalism in the first decades of the seventeenth century. The nineteenth-century reforms of Hill and Scudamore made the postal service an even more important lever of modernity. The developmental potential of public postal services was recognized and promoted by the United Nations, through the agency of the Universal Postal Union, throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
The history of the posts is closely intertwined with the history not only of business but also of employment. In the industrial nations of the nineteenth century, post offices were typically the largest public sector employer. Their three-tier organization (postmaster general, postmaster, postman) was the model for middle management in the nineteenth-century development of railways (with station masters), retail chains (with store managers), and banking and insurance enterprises (with branch managers). The rationale for employing women in public service as sorting and counter clerks in post offices, and as telegraphists and telephonists, was purely to economize on wages, but had the side-effect of facilitating the social acceptability of working women. In a number of countries, the postal service produced test cases in equal opportunities (both sexual and racial) and in public sector unionization.
The invention of the postage stamp opened a new area to forms of mass official communication. Written communication between private individuals came to use tokens bearing portraits of rulers, dynastic or national emblems, and other value-laden images of all sorts. Under highly ideologized regimes there was particular sensitivity to such iconography: during China’s Cultural Revolution, for instance, philatelists might suffer for the hoarding of what could be considered reactionary or capitalist images. The collectibility of stamps has given rise to a philatelic sub-culture with its own literature, journalism, and economics. Old post offices, postage stamps and covers, postboxes and postal uniforms have all become elements of “heritage” nostalgia. Nevertheless, academic study of stamps is virtually nonexistent, and of postal history in a broader sense little better.
- Austen, B. (1986). British mail-coach services 1784–1850. New York: Garland.
- Behringer, W. (2003). Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der Frühen Neuzeit [Under the sign of Mercurius: The imperial postal service and the communication revolution in early modern times]. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
- Caizzi, B. (1993). Dalla posta dei re alla posta di tutti: Territorio e communicazioni in Italia dal XVI secolo all’Unità [From the king’s postal service to a postal service for all: Territory and communication in Italy from the sixteenth century to unification]. Milan: FrancoAngeli.
- Calder, K. E. (1990). Linking welfare and the developmental state: Postal savings in Japan. Journal of Japanese Studies, 16(1), 31–59.
- Clinton, A. (1984). Post office workers. London: Allen and Unwin.
- Dvornik, F. (1974). Origins of intelligence services. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Hey, D. (1980). Packmen, carriers and packhorse roads. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
- John, R. R. (1995). Spreading the news: The American postal system from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Le Roux, M. (ed.) (2002). Histoire de la poste de l’administration à l’entreprise. Paris: Éditions Rue d’Ulm.
- Perry, C. R. (1992). The Victorian post office. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.
- Stoffel, P. (1994). Über die Staatspost, die Ochsengespanne und die requirierten Ochsengespanne: Eine Darstellung des römischen Postwesens [On the state postal service, ox-drawn carriages, and confiscated carriages: A description of the Roman postal service]. Bern: Peter Lang.
- Westney, D. E. (1987). Imitation and innovation: The transfer of western organizational patterns to Meiji Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.