National Stamp Collecting Month: A Brief History of the Mail

Austria - Scott #B321 (1965)
Austria – Scott #B321 (1965)

Long before stamps and those who collected these bits of paper, there was the mail and the hearty souls who carried and delivered it. 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. Appropriately enough, today’s stamp was issued on the date of my own birth which, in 1965, happened to be Austria’s national Stamp Day (Tag der Briefmarke).

The first documented use of an organized courier service is in Egypt in 2400 BC, 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.

The first credible claim for the development of a real postal system comes from Ancient Persia, but the point of invention remains in question. The best documented claim (Xenophon) attributes the invention to the Persian King Cyrus the Great who, in 550 BC, mandated that every province in his kingdom would organize reception and delivery of post to each of its citizens. He also negotiated with neighboring countries to do the same and had roads built from the city of Post in Western Iran all the way up to the city of Hakha in the East.

The map of Achaemenid Empire and the section of the Royal Road noted by Herodotus
The map of Achaemenid Empire and the section of the Royal Road noted by Herodotus.

Other writers credit Cyrus the Great’s successor Darius I of Persia in 521 BC. Other sources claim much earlier dates for an Assyrian postal system, with credit given to Hammurabi (1700 BC) and Sargon II (722 BC). Mail may not have been the primary mission of this postal service, however. The role of the system as an intelligence gathering apparatus is well documented, and the service was later called angariae, a term that in time came to indicate a tax system. The Old Testament (Esther, VIII) makes mention of this system: Ahasuerus, king of Medes, used couriers for communicating his decisions.

The Persian system worked on stations called Chapar-Khaneh (چاپارخانه‎, courier house), where the message carrier (called Chapar) would ride to the next post, whereupon he would swap his horse with a fresh one, for maximum performance and delivery speed. The Greek historian Herodotus described the “Royal Road” and the various Chapar Khaneh along it in The History:

Now the true account of the road in question is the following: Royal stations exist along its whole length, and excellent caravanserais; and throughout, it traverses an inhabited tract, and is free from danger. In Lydia and Phrygia there are twenty stations within a distance Of 94½ parasangs. On leaving Phrygia the Halys has to be crossed; and here are gates through which you must needs pass ere you can traverse the stream. A strong force guards this post. When you have made the passage, and are come into Cappadocia, 28 stations and 104 parasangs bring you to the borders of Cilicia, where the road passes through two sets of gates, at each of which there is a guard posted. Leaving these behind, you go on through Cilicia, where you find three stations in a distance of 15½ parasangs. The boundary between Cilicia and Armenia is the river Euphrates, which it is necessary to cross in boats. In Armenia the resting-places are 15 in number, and the distance is 56½ parasangs. There is one place where a guard is posted. Four large streams intersect this district, all of which have to be crossed by means of boats. The first of these is the Tigris; the second and the third have both of them the same name, though they are not only different rivers, but do not even run from the same place. For the one which I have called the first of the two has its source in Armenia, while the other flows afterwards out of the country of the Matienians. The fourth of the streams is called the Gyndes, and this is the river which Cyrus dispersed by digging for it three hundred and sixty channels. Leaving Armenia and entering the Matienian country, you have four stations; these passed you find yourself in Cissia, where eleven stations and 42½ parasangs bring you to another navigable stream, the Choaspes, on the banks of which the city of Susa is built. Thus the entire number of the stations is raised to one hundred and eleven; and so many are in fact the resting-places that one finds between Sardis and Susa.

The Angarium (Latin from Greek Ἀγγαρήιον angareion) was the institution of the royal mounted couriers in ancient Persia. The messengers, called angaros (ἄγγαρος), alternated in stations that had a day’s ride distance along the Royal Road. The mounted couriers were exclusively in the service of the Great King and the network allowed for messages to be transported from Susa to Sardis —a distance of 1,677 miles (2,699 km) in seven days; the journey took ninety days on foot. Herodotus described the riders in 440 BC:

Now there is nothing mortal which accomplishes a journey with more speed than these messengers, so skillfully has this been invented by the Persians: for they say that according to the number of days of which the entire journey consists, so many horses and men are set at intervals, each man and horse appointed for a day’s journey. These neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents from accomplishing each one the task proposed to him, with the very utmost speed. The first then rides and delivers the message with which he is charged to the second, and the second to the third; and after that it goes through them handed from one to the other, as in the torch-race among the Hellenes, which they perform for Hephaestus. This kind of running of their horses the Persians call Angarium. 

A carefully detailed Corinthian colonnade under the inspirational inscription at the James A. Farley Post Office in New York City.
A carefully detailed Corinthian colonnade under the inspirational inscription at the James A. Farley Post Office in New York City.

A sentence of this description of the Angarium, translated as “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” is prominently inscribed on the James A. Farley Post Office Building in New York City and is sometimes thought of as the United States Postal Service creed.

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 can be dated back to around 3500 to 3200 BC in the ancient Middle East. Hollow, clay spheres were molded around financial tokens and used in private transactions. The two people who discovered these first envelopes were Jacques de Morgan, in 1901, and Roland de Mecquenem, in 1907.

The economic growth and political stability under the Mauryan empire (322–185 BC) saw the development of impressive civil infrastructure in ancient India. The Mauryans developed early Indian mail service as well as public wells, rest houses, and other facilities for the common public. Common chariots called Dagana were sometimes used as mail chariots in ancient India. Couriers were used militarily by kings and local rulers to deliver information through runners and other carriers. The postmaster, the head of the intelligence service, was responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the courier system. Couriers were also used to deliver personal letters.

Some Chinese sources claim mail or postal systems dating back to the Xia (circa 2070-1600 BC) or Shang (circa 1600-1046 BC) dynasties, which would be the oldest mailing service in the world. The earliest credible system of couriers was initiated by the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), who had relay stations every 30 li along major routes.

Paper envelopes were developed in China, where paper was invented by the 2nd century BC. Paper envelopes, known as chih poh, were used to store gifts of money. In the Southern Song dynasty, the Chinese imperial court used paper envelopes to distribute monetary gifts to government officials.

The Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) recorded 1,639 posthouses, including maritime offices, employing around 20,000 people. The system was administered by the Ministry of War and private correspondence was forbidden from the network. The Ming (1368-1644) network had 1,936 posthouses every 60 li along major routes, with fresh horses available every 10 li between them. The Qing (1636-1912), prior to the foreign occupation and reorganization of the Imperial Mail, operated 1,785 posthouses throughout their lands.

Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana (Konrad Miller´s facsimile, 1887). The Tabula Peutingeriana is thought to be the only known surviving map of the Roman cursus publicus, the state-run road network. The surviving map itself was created by a monk in Colmar in modern-day eastern France in 1265. It is a parchment scroll, 0.34 meters (1 foot 1 inch) high and 6.75 meters (22.1 feet) long, assembled from eleven sections, a medieval reproduction of the original scroll.
Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana (Konrad Miller´s facsimile, 1887). The Tabula Peutingeriana is thought to be the only known surviving map of the Roman cursus publicus, the state-run road network. The surviving map itself was created by a monk in Colmar in modern-day eastern France in 1265. It is a parchment scroll, 0.34 meters (1 foot 1 inch) high and 6.75 meters (22.1 feet) long, assembled from eleven sections, a medieval reproduction of the original scroll.

The first well-documented postal service was that of Rome. Organized at the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BC–AD 14), the service was called cursus publicus (Latin, meaning “the public way”; in  Ancient Greek, this was called δημόσιος δρόμος, dēmósios drómos) and was the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire, later inherited by the Byzantine Empire. The Emperor Augustus created it to transport messages, officials, and tax revenues between the provinces and Italy. It was provided with light carriages (rhedæ) pulled by fast horses. By the time of Diocletian, a parallel service was established with two-wheeled carts (birotæ) pulled by oxen. This service was reserved for government correspondence. Yet another service for citizens was later added.

The service was still fully functioning in the first half of the sixth century in the Byzantine Empire, when the historian Procopius accuses Emperor Justinian of dismantling most of its sections, except for the route leading to the Persian border. The extent of the cursus publicus is shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the Roman road network dating from around AD 400.

Genghis Khan (reigned 1206-1227) installed an empire-wide messenger and postal station system named Yam (Өртөө, Örtöö in Mongolian, meaning “checkpoint”) within the Mongol Empire. During the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-1294), this system also covered the territory of China. Postal stations were used not only for the transmission and delivery of official mail but were also available for traveling officials, military men, and foreign dignitaries. These stations aided and facilitated the transport of foreign and domestic tribute specifically and the conduct of trade in general.

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album; the original version was in black and white. Original size is 47 cm wide and 59.4 cm high. Paint and ink on silk. Now located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.
Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album; the original version was in black and white. Original size is 47 cm wide and 59.4 cm high. Paint and ink on silk. Now located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan.

By the end of Kublai Khan’s rule, there were more than 1400 postal stations in China alone, which in turn had at their disposal about 50,000 horses, 1,400 oxen, 6,700 mules, 400 carts, 6,000 boats, more than 200 dogs, and 1,150 sheep. The stations were 25 to 65 km (16 to 40 mi) apart and had reliable attendants working for the mail service. Foreign observers, such as Marco Polo, have attested to the efficiency of this early postal system.

In South India, the Wodeyar dynasty (1399—1947) of the Kingdom of Mysore used a mail service for espionage purposes thereby acquiring knowledge related to matters that took place at great distances. By the end of the 18th century, the postal system in India had reached impressive levels of efficiency. According to British national Thomas Broughton, the Maharaja of Jodhpur sent daily offerings of fresh flowers from his capital to Nathadvara (a distance of 320 km), and they arrived in time for the first religious Darshan at sunrise. Later this system underwent complete modernization when the British Raj established its full control over India. The Post Office Act XVII of 1837 provided that the Governor-General of India in Council had the exclusive right of conveying letters by post for hire within the territories of the East India Company. The mails were available to certain officials without charge, which became a controversial privilege as the years passed. On this basis the Indian Post Office was established on October 1, 1837.

Map of barid (postal) stations in the region of modern-day Yeme, circa ninth century AD, according to the historian Ibn Khurradadhbih, (Ibn Khurradadhbih, Abu al-Qasim 'Abd Allah. Kitab al-Masalik wa'l-Mamalik. Ed. M.J. de Goeje. location = Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1889, p. 153). Each dot represents a postal station.
Map of barid (postal) stations in the region of modern-day Yeme, circa ninth century AD, according to the historian Ibn Khurradadhbih, (Ibn Khurradadhbih, Abu al-Qasim ‘Abd Allah. Kitab al-Masalik wa’l-Mamalik. Ed. M.J. de Goeje. location = Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1889, p. 153). Each dot represents a postal station.

Another important postal service was created in the Islamic world by the caliph Mu’awiyya; the service was called barid, for the name of the towers built to protect the roads by which couriers traveled.

Many religious orders had a private mail service. Notably, the Cistercians had one which connected more than 6,000 abbeys, monasteries, and churches. The best organization, however, was created by the Knights Templar. The newly instituted universities also had their private services, starting from Bologna (1158). Widespread illiteracy was accommodated through the service of scribes. Illiterates who needed to communicate dictated their messages to a scribe, another profession now quite generally disappeared.

Mail has been transported by quite a few throughout history, including dogsled, ski, balloon, rocket, mule, pneumatic tubes, and even submarine. By the 12th century, messenger pigeons were used in Baghdad. Naval chaplain Henry Teonge (circe 1620–1690) describes in his diary a regular pigeon postal service being used by merchants between İskenderun and Aleppo in the Levant. The Mughals also used messenger pigeons. These pigeon posts took advantage of a singular quality of this bird, which when taken far from its nest is able to find its way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach its original nest.

Young lady in oriental clothing with a homing pigeon (19th century painting)
Young lady in Oriental clothing with a homing pigeon (19th century painting)

In 1505, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I established a postal system in the Empire, appointing Franz von Taxis to run it. The Thurn und Taxis family, then known as Tassis, had operated postal services between Italian city states from 1290 onward. Following the abolition of the Empire in 1806, the Thurn-und-Taxis Post system continued as a private organization into the postage stamp era before being absorbed into the postal system of the new German Empire after 1871.

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.

In 1716, Correos y Telégrafos was established in Spain as public mail service, available to all citizens. Delivery postmen were first employed in 1756 and post boxes were installed firstly in 1762.

Prior to 1845, hand-made envelopes were all that were available for use, both commercial and domestic. In 1845, Edwin Hill and Warren De La Rue were granted a British patent for the first envelope-making machine. The “envelopes” produced by the Hill/De La Rue machine were not as we know them today. They were flat diamond, lozenge (or rhombus)-shaped sheets or “blanks” which had been precut to shape before being fed to the machine for creasing and made ready for folding to form a rectangular enclosure. The edges of the overlapping flaps treated with a paste or adhesive and the method of securing the envelope or wrapper was a user choice. The symmetrical flap arrangement meant that it could be held together with a single wax seal at the apex of the topmost flap. That the flaps of an envelope can be held together by applying a seal at a single point is a classic design feature of an envelope.

In the United Kingdom, prior to 1840 letters were paid for by the recipient and the cost was determined by the distance from sender to recipient and the number of sheets of paper rather than by a countrywide flat rate with weight restrictions. Sir Rowland Hill reformed the postal system based on the concepts of penny postage and prepayment. In his proposal, Hill also called for official pre-printed envelopes and adhesive postage stamps as alternative ways of getting the sender to pay for the postage, at a time when prepayment was optional, which led to the invention of the postage stamp, the Penny Black.

Additional articles during this National Stamp Collecting Month of October 2018 will concern other aspects of the long history of the mail. An article earlier this year took a close look at the letter carriers in the United States and the history of the City Mail Delivery service.

Austria – Scott #B321 (1965) first day cover
Austria - Scott #B321 (1965) first day cover
Austria – Scott #B321 (1965) first day cover
Austria - Scott #B321 (1965) first day cover
Austria – Scott #B321 (1965) first day cover

Austria released Scott #B321 on December 3, 1965, a 3-Schilling blue green stamp with a 70-groschen surtax to aid the promotion of philately as a hobby. The engraved stamp features a postman delivering letters into a modern private letter box set. It was recess printed and perforated 13½ x 14. The stamp was issued in conjunction with Austria’s Stamp Day, then in its 30th year, which was highlighted by an international stamp exhibition held at the Messepalast in Vienna.

The day of the stamp (Tag der Briefmarke, or TdB) was the idea of Hans von Rudolphi and first committed in December 1935 in Austria. The goal was to point out the significance of the stamp for the post office and the general public through exhibitions, special stamps, etc. In Germany, the day of the stamp was first celebrated on January 7, 1936, the birthday of Heinrich von Stephan — a general post director for the German Empire who reorganized the German postal service and who was integral in the founding of the Universal Postal Union in 1874. Until the Second World War, Germany’s Stamp Day was held each January 7th. After 1948, the day was moved to the last Sunday in October. Austria issued its first stamp specifically marking Stamp Day on December 3, 1949 (Scott #B268). In Switzerland and Austria, the day is still celebrated in December.

Flag of Austria
Österreichische Post

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