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Postal systems are administratively coordinated communication networks that originated in antiquity, yet remain important today. During their 4,000-year history, they have changed signiﬁcantly, making it hard to generalize about their scale, scope, and accessibility. Until fairly recently, for example, postal systems often conveyed people in addition to information and goods.
Most surveys of the world’s postal systems are institutional genealogies. Postal systems beget one another in a grand procession of names, places, and dates. Such an approach has the merit of bringing together a wealth of anecdotal material not easily found elsewhere (Scheele 1970). Yet it exaggerates continuity, discourages systematic comparison, and obscures the role of the postal system as an agent of change.
This research paper takes a comparative institutional approach. The world’s postal systems are divided into three groups: imperial, corporate, and national. The section on national postal systems is subdivided into three parts: origins, postal reform, and twentieth-and twenty-ﬁrst-century developments. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of postal systems and social science, with suggestions for future research.
2. Imperial Postal Systems
Imperial postal systems enabled political leaders to conduct diplomacy, plan military campaigns, and oversee routine administration. The most highly developed were those of the Persians and the Romans. The Persian postal system under Emperor Darius (521–486 BC) employed teams of mounted couriers to transmit clay tablets at 14-mile intervals along a 1,600mile route that stretched from the Tigris River to the Aegean Sea. The Greek historian Herodotus praised its speed and regularity: ‘Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’
The Roman postal system, the cursus publicus, was established by Emperor Augustus (29 BC–AD 14) and lasted 500 years. Relays of couriers with horse-drawn carts transmitted oﬃcial dispatches along with government oﬃcials and their baggage. Routes extended throughout the empire and, during military campaigns, to generals in the ﬁeld. Messages were written on papyrus, parchment, or wax-coated tablets, paper remaining unknown in Europe until after AD 1000. The relays explain the etymology of ‘postal’; it was derived from positus, the past participle of ponere, ‘to place.’ Couriers traveled 50 miles per day—a speed rarely exceeded until the nineteenth century.
Access to the cursus publicus was restricted largely to government oﬃcials. For this reason, some scholars term it a government communication network, and reserve the term postal system for networks open to the general population. Merchants relied on private messengers, seafarers, or friends. Maritime links were particularly important for Christian apostles such as Paul, who used them to send epistles throughout the Mediterranean world.
3. Corporate Postal Systems
Long after the fall of Rome, imperial postal systems continued to ﬂourish in Asia, South America, and the Middle East. In Europe, however, no comparable institution existed for centuries. When postal systems revived in the 1200s, their organizers were no longer imperial regimes, but corporate bodies, including the University of Paris, the monks of Cluny, and the German butchers’ guild.
Corporate postal systems rarely maintained relays of mounted couriers and often lacked the trappings of power. Yet in several respects they marked a distinct advance. Many crossed political boundaries, establishing links between states as well as within them. Few were restricted, like the Roman cursus publicus, to government oﬃcials. Open access was facilitated by the recent introduction of paper, a light-weight writing medium that was easy to transport. The policy also helped defray costs, since travel was expensive and many corporate postal systems were self-supporting. Henceforth, the primary constraint for potential postal patrons was ﬁnancial: postal rates were typically fairly high, limiting access to the well-connected and the well-to-do.
Among the most important corporate postal systems were those established by the Italian citystates. By the end of the thirteenth century, couriers linked Venice with Constantinople, and Florence, Genoa, and Siena with northern France. The most enduring was the Corrieri Bergamaschie that Amadeo Tasso established in Bergamo, near Milan, in 1290. This institution much impressed the Hapsburgs, who, in the 1400s, enlisted the Tasso and Delle Torre families to extend it throughout the Holy Roman Empire.
To oblige the Hapsburgs, the families Germanicized their names to Thurn and Taxis. Shortly thereafter, in 1489, Johann von Taxis became the Hapsburgs’ ﬁrst postmaster. Within the next few years, he and his brother Franz von Taxis established postal links between the Hapsburgs’ far-ﬂung domains and Rome, France, and Spain, and opened the service to the general population (Dallmeier 1977). Couriers carried a distinctive post horn, an instrument that remains to this day a symbol of the German Deutsche Post. Although the rise of the nation-state greatly restricted its scope, the Thurn and Taxis postal system survived until 1867, when it was bought out by the Prussian government (Behringer 1990).
4. National Postal Systems
Corporate postal systems stymied the rulers of the emergent nation-states in several ways. Most obviously, they created an unregulated communication channel that threatened political stability. In addition, they deprived rulers of a useful tool with which to monitor the ﬂow of information and ideas. In response, nation-states throughout Europe, led by France and England, established postal systems under tight government control (Coase 1955).
The French and English postal systems originated, like the imperial postal systems of antiquity, as government communication networks. In France, the founder was Louis XI (1461–83), and in England, Henry VIII (1509–47). In both countries, the early 1600s marked a decisive turning point. Within a few decades, both governments granted access to the general population, instituted a monopoly, established a rate structure and delivery schedule, and organized a surveillance mechanism to monitor their subjects’ correspondence: the cabinet noir in France; the secrets oﬃce in England (Vaille 1946–55, Robinson 1948). Shortly thereafter, the English government mandated a major rate increase, transforming its postal system into a revenue source, which it would remain until the twentieth century (Daunton 1985).
Beginning in the 1600s, national postal systems did much to hasten the emergence of the newspaper—at the time, a new form of political communication. This relationship was particularly close in England, British North America, The Netherlands, and Prussia. By permitting the regular transmission of information on current events, postal systems became, in eﬀect, an early broadcast media. Having gained control of the means of communication, governments used it to foster a distinctive world view. In so doing, they helped forge the national identities that are such a fundamental feature of the modern world (Mueller 1986).
Nowhere was the relationship of the postal system and the newspaper closer than in the USA. In the 1790s, following the adoption of the federal Constitution, the American government invested its postal system with an educational rationale far more expansive than the ﬁscal rationale that had previously prevailed. The new mandate, codiﬁed in the Post Oﬃce Act of 1792, hastened the circulation of news- papers by conveying them at extremely low rates while enormously expanding the number of localities to which they could be sent (John 1995). A landmark in postal history, this policy may well have marked the ﬁrst time a government deliberately subsidized the transmission of a particular kind of information.
By 1828, the American postal system, with almost 8,000 post oﬃces, was larger and more geographically extended than any postal system in Europe. At this time, the USA boasted 74 post oﬃces per 100,000 inhabitants, Britain 17, and France four (John 1995). Prior to the coming of the railroad and telegraph, the American government had established the preconditions for the disembodied public sphere that French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840) would explore so perceptively in Democracy in America.
4.2 Postal Reform
Victorian commentators often hailed the postal system of their day as a fundamentally new institution that was little older than the railroad and telegraph. For the majority of the population, this was often true. Prior to the 1840s, postal rates remained so high that letter writing was, in practice, conﬁned to the few. Even in the USA, if a farmer or artisan received anything in the mail, it was more likely to be a newspaper than a letter.
In both Britain and the USA, the high cost of letter postage hastened the establishment of clandestine letter-delivery services in direct violation of the postal monopoly. Following the advent of the railroad in the 1830s, these operations expanded greatly, hastening the major rate reduction known as postal reform.
Postal reform began in Britain, where it was championed by educator Rowland Hill. Hill recognized that high letter rates encouraged illicit mail carriage, and posited that a major reduction would hasten a massive expansion in letter writing. To buttress his argument, he demonstrated in a famous pamphlet, Post Oﬃce Reform: Its Importance and Practicality (1837), that rates bore no relation to expenses. All but a tiny fraction of the cost of delivering a letter, Hill calculated, derived from its routing through the system rather than from its conveyance from sender to recipient.
Hill prevailed and, in 1840, the British government simpliﬁed the rate schedule and reduced the basic letter rate to one penny. Hill styled his reform uniform postage; it was commonly called penny postage. Hill’s reform greatly increased mail volume, just as he had predicted. In addition, it hastened the advent of several familiar postal practices, including mandatory prepayment, mail boxes, and the postage stamp (Daunton 1985).
Many governments followed Hill’s lead. The USA lowered its letter rates in 1847 and 1851; France in 1848. Japan, eager to emulate the best practices in the West, established in 1870 a postal system modeled closely on Britain’s (Westney 1987). Increased mail volume, in conjunction with the advent of the ocean- going steamship, hastened the proliferation of trans- national postal treaties. These diplomatic initiatives were regularized in 1878 with the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), today a branch of the United Nations. Closely related to postal reform was the substitution of the railroad for the stagecoach as the preferred mode of conveyance. By the 1830s, stagecoach service had attained a high level of development, especially in Britain and France. Interestingly, Rowland Hill based his famous cost calculations on the stagecoach, rather than the rail-road, which had yet to be widely adopted. Stagecoach speeds often averaged 10 miles per hour, a standard rarely matched since the demise of the cursus publicus of imperial Rome. The use of the railroad to convey mail posed various scheduling dilemmas and could increase postal costs; in the USA, for example, it quickly ran the postal system into debt. Yet it proved indispensable, greatly increasing carrying capacity and revolutionizing postal routing. In Britain, the USA, and most industrialized nations, it was long customary to sort the mail on-board moving trains, a practice known as railway mail.
Postal reform ushered in a golden age of letter writing. In many countries, the exchange of holiday greeting cards became a popular custom. Soldiers’ letters emerged, especially in wartime, as a notable mode of literary expression. Although letter writing would, in the twentieth century, face competition from telephony, the habit persists, and, since the popularization of E-mail, may well be enjoying a revival.
In the decades preceding World War I, each of the world’s leading postal systems—Britain, France, Germany, and the USA—undertook major new responsibilities. Each established a parcel post and instituted a rudimentary banking service known as postal savings. And each, with the exception of the USA, took over the telegraph and telephone, establishing a ministry of Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones, known in France and elsewhere as the PTT (Bertho 1981, Perry 1992). This expansive era in postal history reached its apogee around 1900, when it was common for journalists to hail the postal system as the greatest business in the world (Fuller 1972).
4.3 Twentieth And Twenty-ﬁrst Century Developments
In both the developed and the developing world, postal systems remain indispensable elements of the information infrastructure (Sinclair 1984). In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, much changed. Beginning around 1970, rapid changes in communications technology led many governments to reevaluate the union of the postal system, the telegraph, the telephone. Deregulation followed. In Britain, the break-up came in 1981, and in France, in 1991.
The Internet poses a further challenge, yet, in a sense, it is nothing new. Since the mid-nineteenth century, postal systems have co-existed with earlier modes of electric communications. The USA is the originator not only of the Internet, but also of 40 percent of all the world’s mail. In the early twentieth century, pundits routinely predicted that telegraphy would soon render mail delivery obsolete, yet telegraphy has been everywhere supplanted, while postal systems thrive.
Additional challenges stem from the emergence of new competitors, e.g., DHL in Europe, Federal Express and UPS in the USA. Express ﬁrms rely on improvements in air travel to compete head-on with the national postal systems in key high-value markets. In response, many governments have re-examined—and, in several cases, narrowed—the scope of the postal monopoly (Campbell 1994).
Postal systems have met these challenges in various ways. Many have reinvented themselves as public corporations, a transformation sometimes called privatization. If this trend continues, postal systems in the twenty-ﬁrst century may share less with the national postal systems out of which they evolved than the corporate postal systems of medieval Europe. The French postal system, known today as La Poste, has been a publicly traded corporation since the 1970s. The British postal system, the Royal Mail, has aggressively sought new markets. So, too, has the Deutsche Post, which issued its ﬁrst securities in 2000, and the US Postal Service, which has not been a government department since 1970 and no longer receives a government subsidy.
5. Postal Systems And Social Science
Scholars agree that the printing press was an agent of change. Only recently, however, have postal systems been studied in a similar way. The last edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) contained no entry on the postal system, and no references to it in the index.
The rise of the new institutionalism in history, sociology, and political science bodes well for postal studies. So too does the vogue for French literary theory, with its focus on the complexity of the communication process (Siegert 1993). Developments in information technology promise further insights, oﬀering new perspectives on modes of communication that are seemingly being displaced. For postal scholars, Hegel’s dictum holds true: the owl of Minerva ﬂies at dusk.
Research opportunities abound. Comparative data remain scarce, especially for the period prior to 1840. Without it, it is hard to frame credible generalizations about what postal systems did and how they worked. Topics that invite exploration include the development and signiﬁcance of scheduling; censorship and surveillance; postal privacy; communication networks and the rise of nationalism; challenges to the postal monopoly; changing rationales for postal systems; and the shifting meaning of the equal access ideal.
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