History of Mail and the Postal System

A right hand sending letter to post box
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The history of using a mail service or courier service to pass messages from one person in one place to another person in another place has most likely been occurring since the invention of writing. 

The first documented use of organized courier service is in Egypt in 2400 B.C., where Pharaohs used couriers to send out decrees throughout the territory of the State. The earliest surviving piece of mail is also Egyptian, which dates back to 255 BC.

There is evidence of postal systems dating back to ancient Persia, China, India and Rome.

Today, the Universal Postal Union, established in 1874, includes 192 member countries and sets the rules for international mail exchanges.

First Envelopes

The first envelopes were made of cloth, animal skins or vegetable parts. 

The Babylonians wrapped their message in thin sheets of clay that were then baked. These Mesopotamian envelopes date back to circa 3200 BC. They were hollow, clay spheres that were molded around financial tokens and used in private transactions. 

Paper envelopes were developed in China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century B.C. Paper envelopes, known as chih poh, were used to store gifts of money.

Of Mice and Mail

In 1653, a Frenchman De Valayer established a postal system in Paris. He set up mailboxes and delivered any letters placed in them if they used the postage pre-paid envelopes that he sold. De Valayer's business did not last long when a devious person decided to put live mice in the mailboxes scaring away his customers.

Postage Stamps

A schoolmaster from England, Rowland Hill, invented the adhesive postage stamp in 1837, an act for which he was knighted. Through his efforts, the first postage stamp system in the world was issued in England in 1840. Hill created the first uniform postage rates that were based on weight, rather than size. Hill's stamps made the prepayment of postage both possible and practical. 

History of The United States Postal Office

The United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the U.S. federal government and has been responsible for providing postal services in the U.S. since its start in 1775. It is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution. Founding father Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. 

First Mail Order Catalog

The first mail order catalog was distributed in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward selling goods primarily to rural farmers who had difficulty making it out to the big cities for commerce. Ward started his Chicago-based business with only $2,400. The first catalog consisted of a single sheet of paper with a price list, 8 inches by 12 inches, showing the merchandise for sale with ordering instructions. The catalogs then expanded into illustrated books. ln 1926, the first Montgomery Ward retail store opened in Plymouth, Indiana. In 2004, the company was re-launched as an e-commerce business.

The First Automatic Postal Sorter

Canadian electronics scientist Maurice Levy invented an automatic postal sorter in 1957 that could handle 200,000 letters an hour.

The Canadian Post Office Department had commissioned Levy to design and supervise the building of a new, electronic, computer-controlled, automatic mail sortation system for Canada. A hand-made model sorter was tested at postal headquarters in Ottawa in 1953. It worked, and a prototype coding and sortation machine, capable of processing all of the mail then generated by the City of Ottawa, was built by Canadian manufacturers in 1956. It could process mail at a rate of 30,000 letters per hour, with a missort factor of less than one letter in 10,000.