Postal Systems

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POSTAL SYSTEMS. The communications revolution of the early modern period was the result of the first reliable infrastructure of communication introduced at the beginning of the sixteenth century in central Europe. Postal systems were basically systems of portioning the space to create reliable channels of communication. In Renaissance Italy, where messenger systems were developed further than anywhere else in Europe in the late Middle Ages, some princes started experimenting with a division of labor known only from ancient literature or from Marco Polo's (12541324) report on China: couriers on horses that changed at regular intervals at fixed points, the posts, and followed fixed courses. However, postal lines were expensive and remained unstable. The most frequent data comes from the wealthier territory of Italy, the duchy of Milan under the Visconti. Milanese corrieri seem to have spread the art of effectively transporting information, first throughout Italy (Venice, the papal states) and subsequently throughout Europe. The lingua franca of European communications remained Italian well into the seventeenth century, and some Italian terms (posta, paccheto, franco, porto) survive in many languages in the twenty-first century.


The decisive change came when Emperor Maximilian I (German king from 1486, Holy Roman emperor 14931519) commissioned the Taxis (or Tassis) family with establishing an effective communication system for the Habsburg dynasty. This proved to be a major challenge because of the far-flung Habsburg marriage associations. Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy (14571482), his son Philip I of Castile (ruled 1506) married the heiress of Castile and Aragón, and Maximilian's grandson Charles of Spain (king of Spain 15161556; emperor as Charles V 15191556) ruled over large parts of Europe from the Netherlands to Sicily with close links to the Austrian Habsburgs who had inherited Hungary and Bohemia.

Unlike in ancient Rome or China, no European ruler was able or willing to finance his or her own postal system. This tension between an obvious demand and a fragile budget was exploited by Francesco de Tassis (14591519), by then the head of the northern branch of the Taxis family from Cornello in Lombardy. This family had gained experience in the Milanese and Venetian courier business, the Roman branch actually running the papal messenger system. Francesco de Tassis managed to escape the control of the imperial administration by forging a link to Burgundy (1501) and turning the postal system into a private enterprise based upon a contract among the Taxis company and Burgundy (1505) and Spain (1516).

Unlike in France or England, from then on the postmastersnot the stateswere in control of the channels of communication in central Europe and large parts of Italy. The decisive innovations took place there, most importantly that permanent post courses were established around 1510, the service was opened to the public, and periodical post riders were established in 1534 between Antwerp and Venice and three years later between Venice and Rome. The postal systems in Italy, Germany, France, England, and Spain were open to travel as soon as post houses, mostly existing taverns, were fixed. But only within the Holy Roman Empire was the postal system open to the general public. Everybody was entitled to use the post not by privilege but by paying a fee, the porto. The post houses, previously only places to change horses, were opened to the public as well and became post offices, where mail, checks, or samples could be dispatched and collected. The postal lines thus became the veins of early capitalism. William Harvey (15781657), discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was the son of a postmaster.

Public access to these channels of communication triggered a series of innovations. Within a few years it revolutionized the daily routines of the educated, whose habit it became to use the post, according to its set schedule, for regular correspondence. Public access changed the terms of trade, diplomacy, and politics. From the 1560s weekly written reports were commissioned by princes and leading trading companies, like the Fugger business (collecting, for example, the Fugger Newsletters ), and commercial newsagents and even news agencies emerged in the imperial city of Augsburg, which lay at the heart of the European postal system, midway between Antwerp and Venice. From the early 1580s these weekly reports were published as newsbooks for the book fairs in Frankfurt and Leipzig (in books called Messrelationen ). In 1597 a newsagent failed in publishing a monthly newspaper. But in September 1605 Johann Carolus, a newsagent who had become a printer in the imperial city of Strasbourg, succeeded in establishing a weekly newspaper. Both Carolus's Relation as well as the second newspaper, the Wolfenbüttel Aviso (1609), depended on news from Augsburg delivered by the ordinary post riders of the imperial post.

The invention of the periodical press, a media revolution of prime importance, was thus part of a more general communications revolution. From about 1615 the media revolution gathered momentum, and newspapers were established in a good number of towns within the Holy Roman Empire, some in fact edited by postmasters directly. In 1618, when three publishers were already competing in the imperial city of Frankfurt, this innovation was adopted in the Netherlands. In 1622, presumably not by chance the very year a reliable postal service between Brussels and London was established, the first newspaper attempts started in England, largely depending on news reports from the Continent. Austria and Switzerland followed in 1622, France in 1631, Italy (Florence) in 1636, Sweden in 1645, and Spain and Poland 1661. Only after the collapse of the Licensing Act in 1642 did London become a news capital.


During the Thirty Years' War (16181648) the postal systems of France and England were opened to the general public, and postal networks were introduced in Scandinavia. Around 1630 France succeeded in creating an advanced postal network. The introduction of mail coaches instead of postal riders on all post courses triggered a series of spinoff benefits, such as official printed timetables and the first map indicating existing travel facilities.

Nicolas Sanson's map of 1632 provided the cartographic prototype for scores of postal maps, which were replaced only in the nineteenth century by rail maps and road maps. By 1700 postal maps existed for all European countries and for Europe as a whole, and they offer important insights into the kinds of infrastructures established in different countries. Clearly the postal networks in Italy, Spain, Austria, and Poland had stagnated, whereas in England, France, Belgium, and Germany densely woven networks signaled continuous improvement.

By 1750 European travelers admired the communications system of Britain, although stagecoaches were still run by private haulers and mail coaches were only introduced in 1784. However, the trusts of haulers and innkeepers functioned in a manner not dissimilar to the postal systems of the Continent. Not hampered by the transport of mail, the velocity of British stagecoaches was indeed higher, and new types of coaches were developed, owing to the achievements of the turnpike system of road construction. In contrast to riders, coaches required artificial roads, and systematic road construction was a necessary consequence of the introduction of mail coaches. The post office usually negotiated the building of roads and bridges, and in many countries postmasters were indeed employed as overseers of the roads.

By 1800 the postal networks represented fairly well the progress of industrialization in western Europe, followed by the American East Coast. However, eastern Europe was still undeveloped, and southern Europe had fallen behind. Postal systems also mirrored political structures. The networks in Britain and France were rigorously centralized in the capitals, whereas Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland were characterized by a more evenly distributed network. Absolutist territories within the Holy Roman Empire, such as Prussia, reveal a centralized pattern also. At the end of the era, postal systems had reached the maximum of their capabilities in western Europe, with seven hundred mail coaches and thirty-three hundred stagecoaches serving in England alone. Clearly the subsequent railway networks were modeled after the postal networks and replaced coaches on the main routes in transporting mail and passengers. This, however, did not mean the end of the mail coaches. The number of mail coaches even rose, since all the rail lines needed reliable suppliers or shuttles. Railways and steamships became parts of the postal systems. However, the importance of the postal systems as institutions declined sharply. Once the universal means of communication, for travel as well as money and letters, the systems' functions disintegrated with the introduction of novel networks, such as telegraphy, railways, telephones, and later cars with motor engines. From about 1850 post offices merely bore the name of the formerly universal institution that had ceased to exist.

The early modern postal system was a reliable medium of communication that triggered a series of media revolutions. The scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the political revolutions in England, France, and America took place in the era of the early modern postal systems. The early modern period was a distinctive era in the history of communications molded by the particularities of its communications systems. If one adopts the notion of a communications revolution, one can explain the pattern of all subsequent changes in communication, even to the twenty-first century. The early modern postal systems represented a first universal Internet. Borrowing from Immanuel Wallerstein's description of a "European World System," the early modern postal system could be seen as the grandmother of the World Wide Web.

See also Communication and Transportation ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Journalism, Newspapers, and Newssheets ; Scientific Revolution .


Albion, Robert G. "The Communication Revolution." American Historical Review 37 (1932): 718720.

Arbellot, Guy. Autour des routes de poste: Les premières cartes routières de la France, XVIIeXIXe siècle. Paris, 1992.

Beale, Philip. A History of the Post in England from the Romans to the Stuarts. London, 1998.

Behringer, Wolfgang. Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der frühen Neuzeit. Göttingen, 2003.

. Thurn und Taxis: Die Geschichte ihrer Post und ihrer Unternehmen. Munich, 1990.

John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Wolfgang Behringer

Postal Systems

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Postal Systems


Preindustrial Period Postal systems—networks of transportation dedicated to the dissemination of letters and written messages—have a long history. The ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, and Chinese empires each developed complex systems of runners and routes for the conveyance of messages. These complex systems atrophied in Europe and the Mediterranean during the medieval period, where the most important communication networks were run not by the state but rather by universities (such as the University of Paris), monastic orders (such as the Benedictines), and commercial communities (such as the Hanseatic League). In the early modern period, royal courts again assumed responsibility for the key networks of messengers, frequently opening them up to public use while at the same time keeping them under strict surveillance. In the late eighteenth century, postal networks within Europe expanded as increasingly complex road systems reached further into the countryside, and states were increasingly aware of the commercial and revenue benefits that resulted from postal communication. By the mid 1760s most towns in Britain received mail every day, and France had a similarly dense network of postal delivery (although in France every letter had to go through Paris, where it might be vetted). In the final two decades of the eighteenth century these road networks were extended, especially by Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe, and the surfaces of roads were greatly improved. These innovations allowed for the use of horse-drawn mail coaches instead of a solitary postboy, increasing both the volume of mail that was able to be carried and the speed with which it was transported: in 1780 postboys would travel at around three or four miles an hour, but by 1800 mail coaches were traveling at ten miles an hour, cutting long-distance postal times in half.

Railroads and Steamships During the nineteenth century two major transformations further reshaped postal services. The first of these developments was steam power. In the mid 1830s the major cities in both Britain and France were beginning to be connected by fast and reliable rail and postal communications. By the 1850s significant market towns, military garrisons, and regional political centers enjoyed swift and regular rail-based postal service, and as a result horse-drawn mail coaches disappeared. While the steam locomotive greatly reduced the time it took to deliver a letter within any particular European nation, the steamship revolutionized international postal communications. Early transatlantic steamer services were devoted to mail in the 1830s, and by 1870 most major cities, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, or the Americas, were connected to international mail networks serviced by steamships. This situation greatly reduced communication times, increasing the speed with which news and information traveled. Where a letter from London to New York would take almost a month to arrive in 1830, it took little more than a week by 1870. A letter from London to Bombay would take

just under a month to arrive in 1870 rather than the six months that was common in 1830.

Reduced Charges The second major transformation that reshaped postal services in the nineteenth century was the simplification and reduction of postal charges. In the eighteenth century, European states prized postal communications because of the large amount of revenue generated by the taxes levied on letters. In the 1830s, however, a new generation of reformers argued that postal communications could be streamlined by introducing a standard basic charge and by reducing the bureaucratic machinery that registered every letter and used complex equations to calculate the charge for each piece of mail. Rowland Hill argued that any letter that was less than half an ounce in weight should cost one penny to send anywhere in the United Kingdom. Hill’s proposal was greeted with skepticism within the government and postal bureaucracy but won tremendous popular support. In 1839 this simplified system became law in Britain, and it soon became the model for the British colonies and other European nations. It made postal communications simple and affordable. The post was increasingly used by a large cross section of society, and the volume of mail rapidly increased. Between 1839 and 1840 the number of letters sent in Britain doubled, by 1850 the volume of post was four times greater than it had been in 1839, and by 1870 it was ten times greater.

Colonies European authorities also attempted to transplant this new standardized postal model to their colonies. In India, for example, the British encountered a society that had an elaborate preexisting messenger system, the dak. Under the emperor Akbar in the early seventeenth century, India had more than two thousand miles of post roads. The political instability that undercut Mughal authority in the eighteenth century weakened this system, and in the 1760s and 1770s the East India Company first infiltrated and then reformed the dak. Still heavily reliant on structures and personnel inherited from the dak, the East India Company opened its new postal service for public use in 1774. By the 1830s there were deep concerns about the efficiency and security of this system, and in response the Imperial Post was established in 1837. The Imperial Post exercised a monopoly over postal communications between Calcutta and principal provincial towns, while a variety of local services connected these provincial centers to their hinterlands. In 1850 these parallel systems were merged under a director general and, following the metropolitan example, a uniform postage rate was also introduced.

International Networks A drive to streamline and regularize postal communications between nations also occurred in the mid nineteenth century. International postage became increasingly efficient and popular in the 1870s as a result of two important changes. First, improvements in transport, especially the establishment of long-distance steamer routes and the construction of the Suez Canal, drastically reduced transportation times. Second, the formation of the Universal Postal Union in 1875 established a standard framework for international postage. Its members, who included almost all nation-states, agreed that the charges for items posted would not be shared, as the country in which the item was posted would collect the revenue while the nation where the mail was delivered received no payment. The foundation of the Universal Postal Union allowed the smooth and equitable administration of international postal communications, a vitally important innovation given the centrality of letter writing and postal communication in nineteenth-century commerce and culture.


C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (Cambridge ’ New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

M. J. Daunton, Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840 (London ’ Dover, N.H.: Athlone, 1985).

Daniel R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (Oxford ’c New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Mohini Lal Majumdar, Early History and Growth of Postal System in India (Calcutta: Rddhi-India, 1995).

Howard Robinson, The British Post Office: A History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970).

Postal System

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The first regular postal routes in Russia (Moscow-Voronezh and later MoscowSt. Petersburg) were established at the start of the eighteenth century. In 1741 the service was expanded and intended to en-compass all provinces of the empire. In reality, postal services were largely concentrated in European Russia, and mail was only delivered to one central location in a town, often a tavern. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, it became possible to send parcels through the mail as well as letters. Between 1830 and 1840, larger urban centers began to create systems for mail delivery within their confines, and this development spurred an increase not only in the number of mail distribution points within a given city but also in the number of letters being sent. In 1848 the first prestamped envelopes appeared, and periodicals began to be distributed by mail. Postal services were gradually extended to some larger villages in Russia starting in the 1870s.

During the eighteenth century, postal affairs were in the hands of the Senate, but in 1809 they were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 1830 a Main Postal Administration was established as a separate government organ, and it was superseded from 1865 to 1868 by a new Ministry of Post and Telegraph. After 1868 the postal system again became part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The turmoil of the Russian Revolutions and Civil War greatly affected the postal system. Services had to be reestablished gradually as outlying areas were subdued by the Bolsheviks. At the center, a new ministry, The People's Commissariat of Post and Telegraph (Narkompochtel) was established, but it was not until the mid-1920s that services were restored across the country. In 1924 the "circular-post" was set up, whereby horse-drawn carts were used to distribute mail and sell postal supplies along regular routes. Within a year, the network had 4,279 routes with more than 43,000 stopping points, and it covered 275,000 kilometers (170,900 miles). Permanent village postmen emerged in larger settlements as well in 1925, and they became responsible for home delivery when that aspect of the postal service was created in 1930.

In 2002 the postal system was divided administratively into ninety-three regional postal departments with 40,000 offices and 300,000 employees. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the postal system has declined dramatically. Letters routinely take weeks to arrive, and a sizeable number of customers are beginning to bypass the postal system in favor of private courier services. In order to remain profitable, many post offices have had to branch out into a wide array of services, including offering Internet access or renting some of their space to other retail outlets. The Russian government has also begun to consider the idea of merging the regional departments into a single joint-stock company to be called "Russian Post."

See also: ministry of internal affairs


Rowley, Alison. (2002). "Miniature Propaganda: Self-Definition and Soviet Postage Stamps, 19171941." Slavonica 8:135157.

Skipton, David, and Michalove, Peter. (1989). Postal Censorship in Imperial Russia. Urbana, IL: J. H. Otten.

Alison Rowley