History of Mail and the Postal System

A right hand sending letter to post box
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The history of postal systems, a mail or courier service to pass messages from one person in one place to another person in another place, starts with the invention of writing and may well have been one of the reasons writing was invented.

Writing as a Commercial Enterprise

The start of writing occurs in Mesopotamia at least 9,500 years ago, and it involved the use of clay tokens, blobs of baked clay which had dots or lines incised in them representing quantities of goods. A courier might bring tokens to a seller for so many bushels of grain, or so many jars of olive oil, and the seller would send the tokens with the goods back to the buyer. Think of it as a Bronze Age bill of lading.

By 3500–3100 BCE, the Uruk-period Mesopotamian trade network had ballooned, and they wrapped their clay tokens in thin sheets of clay that were then baked. These Mesopotamian envelopes called bullae were intended to deter fraud, so that the seller could be certain that the correct amount of goods would get to the buyer. Eventually the tokens were done away with and a tablet with markings was used—and then writing really took off.

Postal System

The first documented use of a postal system—state-sponsored, designated couriers who were trusted to transport messages—occurred in Egypt about 2400 BCE, when 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 BCE, recovered from the Oxyrhynchus papyri cache.

The same type of courier service was likely used to administer taxes and keep up to date on far-flung reaches of most empires, such as the Persian empire in the Fertile Crescent (500–220 BCE), the Han dynasty in China (306 BCE–221 CE), the Islamic Empire (622–1923 CE) in Arabia, the Inca empire in Peru (1250–1550 CE), and the Mughal empire in India (1650–1857 CE). In addition, there were undoubtedly state-sponsored messages transported along the Silk Road, between traders in different empires, probably since its inception in the 3rd century BCE.

The first envelopes protecting such messages from prying eyes were made of cloth, animal skins or vegetable parts. Paper envelopes were developed in China, where paper was invented in the 2nd century BCE. Paper envelopes, known as chih poh, were used to store gifts of money.

The Birth of Modern Mail Systems

In 1653, Frenchman Jean-Jacques Renouard de Villayer (1607–1691) 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.

A schoolmaster from England, Rowland Hill (1795–1879), 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. 

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

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 (1843–1913) 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 8- by 12-inch sheet of paper with a price list showing the merchandise for sale with ordering instructions. The catalogs then expanded into illustrated books. In 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. 

Sources and Further Reading