June 13, 2022

A brief history of postal services

Main image: Pony Express Rider painting Smithsonian

Come rain come shine, in good times and in bad times; mail and parcel delivery might be a service most of us take for granted. When we buy something online, packages seemingly magically appear on our doorsteps, often within just a few days or even hours.

However, things weren't always as efficient as today, and there was once a world where communication was not at the tip of our fingers. To honour the past, we have gone back in time and found some incredible facts about the history of postal services.

A tale as old as time

A tale as old as time, parcel delivery or mail couriers have existed since the earliest civilisations. There's evidence of remarkable postal systems in ancient Persia, India, and China.

The very first traces of mail can be found in Ancient Egypt around 2000 B.C. The postal service was exclusive to the pharaohs who used couriers to send out directives throughout the state's territory.

Around 550-330 BCE, the Achaemenid Persians would deliver through a system of couriers on horseback. Travelling through the Royal Road, a message could be sent from Susa to Sardis between seven and nine days. Like Ancient Egypt, mail in the Persian Empire was not just for anyone: only the king and influential leaders could use the postal system.

The Greek historian Herodotus once wrote in 500 BC: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

He was describing the Persian postal service, which he deeply admired. You might also recognise this is also USPS's unofficial motto and slogan.

Much later, about 20 BCE, the emperor Augustus created Cursus Publicus, the courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire. Scholars have estimated that the average speed of a messenger over the Roman road system was about 50 miles per day. Impressive!

Pony Express

Fast forward a bit, one of the most legendary mail services in history is probably Pony Express. Like Cursus Publicus, Pony Express was an American express mail service that used relays of horse-mounted riders between Missouri and California — a nearly 2,000 miles long route.

Pony Express reduced the time for messages between the east and west U.S. coast to about ten days, as horseback riders would travel between stations at a breakneck pace. Since speed was the main goal, younger and smaller men (think modern horseracing jockeys) were often the prefered hires, and it has been documented that the youngest rider was only 14 years old.

The service was exceptionally efficient; only one mail bag was reported lost!

But, despite its legendary status, Pony Express was sadly a financial flop and was only in operation for 18 months. It ultimately folded in October 1861, having lost upwards of $200,000.

The Mailster

With new technology, horses quickly became a thing of the past. During the first half of the twentieth century, mail trucks transported carriers to the spot where they began their daily rounds on foot. But by the 1950s, to become more efficient, the Post Office Department in the U.S started putting carriers behind the wheel.

Westcoaster Mailster Smithsonian

This little three-wheeled vehicle is called the 'Mailster'. The incredibly lightweight mail delivery van could hold about five hundred pounds of mail in its compartments, allowing carriers to complete longer routes. By the early 1960s, the Mailster made up one-third of the post's vehicular fleet, according to The Smithsonian.

Unfortunately, as adorable as the Mailsters were, they did not work out as well as Department officials had wished. They had initially been tested in Florida and worked sufficiently there, but things started to go downhill when entering other terrains. Mailsters on snowy routes stopped working in as little as three inches of snow, and sometimes the three-wheel design made the vehicles susceptible to tipping if caught in the wind. Not ideal when handling mail!

Baby by parcel post

On January 1, 1913, the post offices in the U.S began accepting larger parcels and packages through the mail. However, the regulations for what you could and couldn't send through the mail were unclear — and people being people — many families immediately started pushing the service's limits.

One Ohio couple took advantage of this and made an extraordinary delivery: their son. The parents paid 15 cents for stamps and then handed him over to the mailman, who dropped the boy off at his grandmother's house about a mile away.

Numerous more low-income families used it to mail their children to relatives across the country; it was simply cheaper to buy the stamps to send a kid by Railway Mail than buy a train ticket. It's important to note that the parents weren't handing them over to a stranger; in most rural areas, many families knew their mailman back in the day.

The loophole was quickly outlawed, and in June 1920, First Assistant Postmaster General John C. Koons had to reject two applications to mail kids, stating that they couldn't be classified as "harmless live animals".

Although the principles in which we deliver mail and parcels have remained the same throughout history, many things have changed — and with the rise of technology, there is still so much innovation in parcel delivery waiting to happen. One can only hope that someone brings back the Mailster, but maybe a little more sturdy this time?

Have any questions or comments? Feel free to reach out to us at hey@hived.space.

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